In general (not restricted to this site), what counts as a good philosophical explanation? Are there any objective standards?

  • 1
    "On this site I've observed fairly dubious "philosophical" explanations, that are still highly rated and accepted as answers." - well, there you go. How did you come to realize that these questions were dubious (i.e. bad, roughly speaking)? Answer yourself that question, and your question will almost be completely answered.
    – user132181
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:10
  • 1
    @user132181 perhaps yters recognizes that his own preferences or opinion of a 'good' answer might not be the standard. He's asking about standards used on this site (I think)
    – That Guy
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 3:19
  • 3
    The Stackexchange family of sites is designed for people to post definitive answers to question that have definitive answers. Philosophy has no definitive answers, only more questions. So this entire site is a logical contradiction from the very start. Stackexchange is not a discussion forum. But the discussion format is better for people who are trying to work their way through nuanced philosophical issues. It's amazing this site works at all. And of course you are right, if Aristotle and Wittgenstein had to compete for "points," they might not even have bothered.
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 3:39
  • 2
    Framing this as two separate concerns might be more constructive; you seem to be asking for both "objective" standards of good philosophy... and also asking why some content on this site isn't written for your particular sensibilities! But as far as I can tell these are really independent concerns. Maybe this could be approached a bit more incrementally, and keep in mind questions about this site's policies really belong on meta
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 15:27
  • 1
    Basically -- I think it's necessary here to take a more narrow (even nuanced or cautious) approach to this problem of value in philosophy, which again is of course in general an interesting topic (the qualities of different powers of thought) but I think we need to try to zoom in a bit further on some particular/specific/contextualized problem -- even if in the end it is a problem with some other specific question on this site (although I'd encourage a more structural/theoretical engagement refocusing the kernel of the question in terms of powers and images of thinking)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 23:39

5 Answers 5


Its generally accountable to the philosophical community who over time have generated certain critical standards; its in relation, or rather dialogue to this authority that ones own thought becomes critical & authoritative; this is one one reason to signpost readings of either the primary or secondary literature; and this is often reflected in style.

This doesn't mean that the canon of philosophical works become a 'dead weight' but that they're used to draw up a map & orientation; one also becomes aware of the vast weight of previous argumentation and their repercussions on the cultural firmament of the time.

For example Hannah Arendt uses the phenomenological orientation of Husserl & Heidegger to orient her understanding of political science - this looks at philosophy as being in the world as opposed to from sub specie aeternitas (from the viewpoint of eternity). She counters the valorisation of Platos contemplation with action in the public sphere - ie politics and this draws on her understanding of how politics was understood in the Greek city-state.

Another example would be the Anglo-American analytic tradition which though in a narrow sense was stimulated by the logical argumenation and rigor of Russel, Frege & Wittgenstein; in a wider sense it is derived from the the style of argumentation in Plato where clarity in thought is seen as a natural good; and this is filtered through the European Enlightment tradition.

What can be called the counter-Enlightment takes its orientation with artistic Romanticism; its exemplars are Nietzsche & Derrida amongst others. Their writings tend towards contradiction, polemic and obscurity; their work resists easy reading as the thought is concealed. One can consider it as a code that can be broken in several ways or creatively 'misread'.

And their are the isms that help orient writers in the larger picture and thus orient in what way they are in dialogue with each other; a philosopher doesn't belong to a certain school; more that one should see these isms as a prism that overlays their writings and refracts it in many different directions; whereas seeing the influence of their philosophical predecessors turns their texts into a kind of palimpsest.

All this isn't just true of philosophy, but of any scholarly tradition; and is true of the sciences - say Mathematics or Physics. One could ask of a more particular methodology; in the physical sciences for example there is the notion of the 'repeatable experiment'. But there is no such empirical inquiry - but the larger sense of observation is important; and thus, for example Arendt relies on testimony (and what is this if not observation?) filtered through the secondary literature to examine the notion that she calls Totalitarianism in her book of the same name, as a political institution in its own right - through its roots and its future; and how it is in fact characterised.

  • 2
    While reading books by philosophers can definitely teach someone what philosophers thought, and help a person be well informed, philosophy proper is independent of any particular literary tradition. Per your example of math or physics - a person can do both with little background knowledge. Additionally, reading a lot of incorrect math literature makes someone a bad mathematician. The same is true of philosophy.
    – yters
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 18:18
  • 2
    @yters: it takes on average, in the UK, 6 years of training to get through a BA+Phd, so they're at the point of doing original work ie doing maths/physics; that some commitment & not 'a little background knowledge'. Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 1:48
  • 1
    Yes, that is quite true, in terms of inventing new mathematical and physical theories. I'm talking about everyday doing of math and physics. That requires little background knowledge. The same with philosophy proper, it requires a basic understanding of good premises and argumentation, then it can be done on an everyday basis.
    – yters
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 21:06

Good philosophy defers to science, in empirical matters where science has a say. The world is fundamentally made of subatomic particles that interact according to certain mathematical rules. The mind is fundamentally based in the brain, which consists of neurons and other cells that are made of atoms that interact according to certain mathematical rules.

If you want to say the world is made of ideas, or some other substance - that's fine, as long as to you, "ideas" are functionally indistinguishable from how physics says the world works. Whatever you say on metaphysics must functionally boil down to what we've found through science.

Good philosophy is not mystical. It should not depend on mysterious objects or beings that have an influence on the world but which science has not yet found evidence for. Leave the empirical matters to the empiricists.

Words are made of atoms. Atoms are not made of words. We cannot build a picture of the universe that begins with social interaction or social consensus. The very notion of a "social consensus" presupposes an objective external reality in which there is a society. Begin with physics, then you can talk about societies based on that.

Good philosophy is realistic about human psychology. The mind is not an inaccessible black box; it depends on the brain. We can look inside, through science, and get some notions about how it is structured and how it behaves.

Good philosophy is clear and unambiguous. If a philosopher asserts X, then there must be something concrete that X means. The philosopher's job is to be clearly understood.

  • "Good philosophy defers to science, in empirical matters where science has a say. The world is fundamentally made of subatomic particles ...". False on two accounts. Philosophy does not defer to science per se. Philosophy questions everything, including science. As philosophers often point out, the Bohr atomic model, and subsequent revisions of it, on which you base your premise is false. It is a theory and only a theory. It may be our best explanation of matter as of now, but it is not the truth. In fact, we don't know what matter looks like at the smallest level.
    – user48488
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 0:43
  • @user48488 "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together." - Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong
    – causative
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 0:50
  • @user48488 or to put it more directly, theories of physics are not yet exactly right, but they are more right than they were. Science advances over time, and it has become extremely accurate so far. It is not necessary to invoke the Bohr atomic model when saying "subatomic particles"; an electron cloud in QM is still a subatomic particle. But even if I did invoke the Bohr atomic model, it would be more right than if I had invoked the plum pudding model, which would be more right than if I had denied atoms entirely.
    – causative
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 7:04
  • @user48488 We ought to recognize that scientists are the experts in the things that they study, and philosophy must not contradict the findings of scientists. Yes, the scientists may be wrong, but philosophers are not the ones qualified to say so; scientists are. Good philosophy must treat modern science as humanity's best estimate of the way things are, physically, and not attempt to add or subtract anything from it; philosophy's job is only to interpret what it means in respect to philosophical questions.
    – causative
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 7:07
  • It is not a title, group or individual that holds truth. It is truth itself, and truth can come from anyone. The idea that one group - in this case, scientists - holds sway over truth is no different than stating that the clergy holds truth as they did prior to the Age of Enlightenment. It was you, not I, who brought up atomic theory. I simply pointed out that that theory could have nothing to do with reality. Science is not sacrosanct, contrary to what many scientists would like us to believe. And pigeonholing philosophy as only a discipline of interpretation is false.
    – user48488
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 14:49

As you probably know philosophy is centered on asking and answering three fundamental questions, the most fundamental being "what is there?". With "how do i know?" and "what do i do?" the latter two questions necessarily arising as the inquirer becomes self-conscious of the first question, which translate into the philosophical fields of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics respectively. Good philosophy can be said to be based on the most logical possible way of answering the first question, which said answer, by extension provides a framework to answer the latter two questions. This type of "good philosophy", is good because it is logically self-consistent, that is, it does not contradict itself, and is superior to philosophy which is self-contradicting and inconsistent with logic, that is, in this respect, "bad philosophy" is self-evident".

That being said, because Philosophy has not yet produced a theory of everything which adequately satisfies the answering of the three fundamental questions in the most logical and self-consistent way possible, every philosophy that exists, is inferior in this respect to the best possible philosophy.

Now as to why you've observed fairly dubious "philosophical" explanations, that are still highly rated and accepted as answers. The answer to this is because this site is very dogmatic in its approach to answering questions, that is, this site is designed as a platform of which to provide answers to philosophical questions based on the existing work of philosophers. Basically answering these questions using the words of other philosophers, and answers are more highly rated not based on them being logically correct pertaining to the question, but more so based on a specific philosophers thoughts on a question, and the justifications as to why said philosopher thought this or that in regards to this specific question and answer. This is how "dubious" answers become highly rated, because the answer isn't necessarily the correct answer to the question, but a specific philosopher's answer to the question, and said philosopher doesn't necessarily provide the correct answer to the question, just a philosophical framework of which helps the question asker better think through the problem.

  • You might be careful with defining philosophy as such. There is much more to it than that. As well, the phrase "... the correct answer ..." sounds a tad dogmatic.
    – user48488
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 0:29

My own "Intro to Philosophy" textbook said the following:

Truth, Profundity, Clarity but the greatest is Clarity

Truth is of course as elusive a concept as anything else discussed philosophically, and wouldn't be how I would have expressed it, but the basic idea it that the arguments are strong: the arguments (at least appear to be, even after thinking through them considerably) logically valid as well as based on plausible premises. Does it seem correct to you? (Be honest, really.) Would it seem to correct to others? That's the best we can do, for now.

Personally, I'm not sure if I would have put profundity in the list, but I'll admit that it's nicer to have lists of threes. The fact is though, is that good philosophy should make you think in ways that you haven't thought before.

The greatest is definitely clarity, at least for me who grew up in the tradition of analytical philosophy. When philosophers make seemingly profound statements, or pithy aphorisms that might do better as bumper stickers, one might initially be drawn to their elegance, before thinking about what the phrase really means. Some of the most elegant phrases, upon analysis, are revealed to have no meaning at all.


From OED,


Middle English: from Old French philosophie, via Latin from Greek philosophia ‘love of wisdom’.

I will argue a good philosophical answer provides new wisdom to the asker in minimum words.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .