• jamalrob
    2k
    Interesting article on Quartz about the SEP and how its approach could be used more generally to provide authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date information on the web, overcoming the problems with things like Wikipedia.

    http://qz.com/480741/this-free-online-encyclopedia-has-achieved-what-wikipedia-can-only-dream-of/

    EDIT: I just noticed it's from last year.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.1k
    Oops. No longer timely. Toss it.
  • andrewk
    2.1k
    I am a huge fan of Wikipedia, which it sounds like the author of that article is not. SEP is very good in its way, but I have learned far more from Wikipedia than I have from SEP.

    There is one SEP article that I prefer to its Wikipedia equivalent. It's the one on Zermelo Frankel set theory. SEP's presentation of the axioms is clearer and more concise, and not beset by the logical problems. I rewrote some of the Wiki article, fixing some of its ambiguities and inconsistencies, but some contributors are very proprietorial about that page, and very wedded to mirroring the presentation in a particular book (irrespective of any flaws in that book). They reversed my changes so I didn't bother with that page any more. Life is too short to get into arguments over the drafting of an internet page.

    But that's an exception. I find that for most cases in which I am interested the Wikipedia article gets to the point more quickly and gives a better explanation. Where it doesn't, I have occasionally done my bit to improve the page, meeting only very occasional resistance.
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    I don't know. A lot of SEP articles are ponderously dense and unreadable. Yeah, SEP tries to get experts to write them, but these people are in some cases awful writers not suited to writing encyclopedia entries, which, by definition are meant for a general audience.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.1k
    Comparing SEP to Wikipedia is like comparing the Joy of Cooking which covers everything from fried squirrel to lemon meringue with Thirty Nine Steps to Perfect Spaghetti Sauce. One is very comprehensive, the other is very specialized. I've used the JOC for 35 years. The specialized cookbooks were given a suitable burial. Perfect spaghetti sauce is available in jars.

    True enough, the Internet as a whole is an ungraded mix of everything from gold to garbage. Human knowledge has been the same mixed heap since people paused in their rock knapping to think about it. The Internet does not present unique problems. It presents the problem of discriminating gold from garbage much more extensively, but this problem existed a long time before the Internet and the WWW were conceived.

    Wikipedia is not a truckload of the ungraded heap. There are editors, there are readers with specialized knowledge like Andrewk, and corrections can be made. There are alerts on many Wiki entries noting deficiencies. Naturally the articles don't have the sterling provenance of SEP or the Mayo Clinic web site. Of course one should not use a Wiki article to practice medicine on ones self, but one shouldn't use the Mayo Clinic articles that way either. ("He who treats himself has a fool for a doctor.")

    Except: when we surf the web we have to be our own librarians, making distinctions among what seems solidly authoritative, what seems pretty firmly anchored in reality, what seems to be dicey, what seems to be mostly error, and what is 100% rubbish. The only way of determining the grade of what I am reading (if I start knowing nothing about the topic) is to compare sources, and try to discriminate between what is well argued and supported and what is not. Usually it isn't hard to tell the difference.

    If the information is too ambiguous to grade, then one has to head over to a library, a bookstore, or talk to an expert (and even then...)
  • Bitter Crank
    8.1k
    Wikipedia's biggest problem is maintaining what it has in good condition and regularly adding new high quality information. This depends on money, to some extent, but it depends even more on an enlarged core of dedicated volunteers. The energy of the existing core of volunteers is flagging (after years of editing) and the volume of information is increasing, requiring more attention.

    I think its worth worrying about because Wikipedia has been damned useful to me. Again and again it has provided for free and easy what otherwise might have been expensive and certainly laborious to get.
  • Theologian
    160

    I realize I'm practicing thread necromancy here, but for whatever reason the side-bar suggested this thread to me under "More Discussions," and I wanted to say I completely agree with Thorongil.

    A lot of the SEP articles are terrible encyclopaedia articles. Very often I think it would be better described as the "Stanford Technical Manual of Philosophy": the key difference being that an encyclopaedia article should be comprehensible to an intelligent lay person willing to put in a little effort. Very often the SEP seems to give that quaint notion a giant middle finger.

    Not that long ago, this was assigned to me as one of my first year philosophy readings:

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaphysics/

    Quite near the beginning of this atrociously dense and technical piece of writing, the author throws in the line: "The first three of Aquinas's Five Ways are metaphysical arguments on any conception of metaphysics."

    What is the intelligent lay person supposed to make of that? What, I could not help but wonder, even the first time I read it, was the genius lay person supposed to make of it? You either have the highly technical background knowledge required to make sense of this or you don't. Of course in this day and age you can always go look it up elsewhere, but to demand that kind of thing from your reader is just bad writing. To explain the technical in terms of the even more technical is appalling pedagogical practice. And this is far from the only instance in the article where the author does this. Indeed, the practice almost seems to be his standard operating procedure.

    I'm not denying that this article has its uses; or that it cannot be helpful to certain audiences. But judged as an encyclopaedia article (dare I say qua an encyclopaedia article) it is one of the most execrable pieces of writing I have ever encountered.
  • SophistiCat
    798
    Perhaps we've been reading different articles, because my impression of the SEP is the exact opposite. I am a consummate layman: never took a philosophy class, and with the exception of Russell's little History of Western Philosophy, which I read many years ago and which served more to arouse interest and respect for the subject than anything else, I've never even read a complete philosophy book. As layman, I find SEP to be a great resource for getting acquainted with whatever philosophical subjects that catch my fancy. You get a brief explanation of the issue, an overview of developments, challenges, theories, open questions and controversies - and all this is supplied with a bibliography that you can follow at your leisure if you wish. You couldn't get this kind of information otherwise, without being a specialist yourself; I imagine that professional philosophers too find such resources useful for getting into topics that they know less about.

    For the most part, I find the articles pretty accessible. Some topics proved to be a drag because the topic just didn't interest me much, but I don't think I've encountered entries that were objectively badly written or too technical for an interested layman to get at least something out of them.

    Quite near the beginning of this atrociously dense and technical piece of writing, the author throws in the line: "The first three of Aquinas's Five Ways are metaphysical arguments on any conception of metaphysics."Theologian

    I don't understand why you find this sentence problematic. English is not my first language, so tell me, I am curious: is it the style? Or do you really not understand what it is saying?
  • Theologian
    160
    Perhaps we've been reading different articles, because my impression of the SEP is the exact opposite.SophistiCat

    Yes, they do vary considerably. But not to worry: if you keep using it you'll come across one of the abominations soon enough. The link I already provided is a good place to start.


    Incidentally, when I said:

    Quite near the beginning of this atrociously dense and technical piece of writing, the author throws in the line: "The first three of Aquinas's Five Ways are metaphysical arguments on any conception of metaphysics."Theologian

    You inquired:

    I don't understand why you find this sentence problematic. English is not my first language, so tell me, I am curious: is it the style? Or do you really not understand what it is saying?SophistiCat

    It's problematic for exactly the reason I specified. If you read on, I continued:

    What is the intelligent lay person supposed to make of that? What, I could not help but wonder, even the first time I read it, was the genius lay person supposed to make of it? You either have the highly technical background knowledge required to make sense of this or you don't. Of course in this day and age you can always go look it up elsewhere, but to demand that kind of thing from your reader is just bad writing. To explain the technical in terms of the even more technical is appalling pedagogical practice. And this is far from the only instance in the article where the author does this. Indeed, the practice almost seems to be his standard operating procedure.Theologian
  • SophistiCat
    798
    Honestly, I have no idea what you are talking about. Technical terms? What technical terms? Here is the sentence again:

    "The first three of Aquinas's Five Ways are metaphysical arguments on any conception of metaphysics."

    Well, I suppose if the words "Aquinas's Five Ways" say nothing to you, then you wouldn't quite know what the author is referring to, but you would still be able to infer from the context that some famous historical philosophical text is a paradigmatic example of metaphysical writing, even if contemporary metaphysicians concern themselves with different questions. And if you google those words, then in about ten seconds you can learn that "Aquinas's Five Ways" are "five logical arguments regarding the existence of God summarized by the 13th-century Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica."
  • Theologian
    160
    I have no idea what you are talking about. Technical terms? What technical terms?SophistiCat

    Read again. I never mentioned "technical terms." I said:

    You either have the highly technical background knowledge [emphasis added] required to make sense of this or you don't.Theologian

    The question is, can an intelligent lay person who consults an encyclopaedia article hoping to gain a basic understanding of what metaphysics is be expected to know about Aquinas's Five Ways?

    Of course not.

    So is using Aquinas's Five Ways as an illustrative example a good way to explain metaphysics to a lay readership?

    Of course not.

    The author is writing for himself, and perhaps for other philosophers. To return again to the fact that this needs to be judged as an encyclopaedia article, it's lazy, self indulgent writing.

    As for your point, which I anticipated, that the reader could always go look it up, yes, of course they could. But to repeat again what I said before, they shouldn't have to. The writer of this article is the one who's there to explain things. And he's doing a really bad job of it.

    You say:

    you would still be able to infer from the context that some famous historical philosophical text is a paradigmatic example of metaphysical writingSophistiCat

    Well, obviously. But that tells us literally nothing about what metaphysics is.

    Finally, yes, ten seconds is about all it takes to lean that Aquinas's Five Ways are:

    five logical arguments regarding the existence of God summarized by the 13th-century Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica.SophistiCat

    But even if this does not tell us literally nothing, it still tells us very little. Perhaps... that metaphysics might have something to do with the existence of God? That's about it. It certainly doesn't tell us enough to extract much sense out of the article we started with. Why, for example, did the author zero in on only the first three of the five ways? We don't know. We can only find out by investing a significant level of effort into a task we shouldn't have had to undertake in the first place.

    I repeat: it's lazy, self-indulgent writing. And it's a bad encyclopaedia article.
  • SophistiCat
    798
    I don't know that having at least heard of Aquinas' Five Ways constitutes "technical background knowledge," but fine, let's assume that some readers don't have any notion of them. So what? Perhaps you are thinking of an encyclopedia as the sort of popular encyclopedias that used to be sold door-to-door, or children's encyclopedias? Well, this is obviously not that kind of encyclopedia. I am not even sure that complete amateurs are its intended primary readership, but in any case, it is not light entertainment. This is an adult resource dealing with a fairly difficult intellectual subject. It doesn't spoon-feed you everything; if you don't know or don't understand something, it is your responsibility to do the extra work to keep up. And I am glad that the authors and the editors neither dumb down their writing nor bloat it with details intended to explain every little thing and cover every possible gap in the reader's knowledge - and yet they manage to present their subject in a way that even a layman like myself, without any education in the field, can follow most of it.

    Learning something new is always difficult when you have to start from scratch - whether it is learning a foreign language, or a scientific theory, or challenging art. Philosophy is a mature professional field, so why do you have this expectation that learning it should be effortless for everyone, no matter their background?
  • Theologian
    160

    There is a difference between not dumbing a subject down, and explaining it in such a way that your explanation can only be understood by someone who has a sophisticated understanding of that subject already.

    The following is a direct copy and paste from the article:

    The following theses are all paradigmatically metaphysical:

    “Being is; not-being is not” [Parmenides];
    “Essence precedes existence” [Avicenna, paraphrased];
    “Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone” [St Anselm, paraphrased];
    “Existence is a perfection” [Descartes, paraphrased];
    “Being is a logical, not a real predicate” [Kant, paraphrased];
    “Being is the most barren and abstract of all categories” [Hegel, paraphrased];
    “Affirmation of existence is in fact nothing but denial of the number zero” [Frege];
    “Universals do not exist but rather subsist or have being” [Russell, paraphrased];
    “To be is to be the value of a bound variable” [Quine].
    van Inwagen, Peter and Sullivan, Meghan

    Hmm... Okay. Cool.

    My personal favorites are the final three. Although "Existence is a perfection" has its charms too.

    Incidentally, you misrepresent me.

    why do you have this expectation that learning it should be effortless for everyone, no matter their background?SophistiCat

    What I actually said was:

    an encyclopaedia article should be comprehensible to an intelligent lay person willing to put in a little effort.Theologian

    I still don't think they're reaching that bar.

    Try reading the article in its entirety and then get back to me. Of course, you do realize that I suggest this only because you have now earned sufficient enmity that I want to make you suffer...
  • SophistiCat
    798
    There is a difference between not dumbing a subject down, and explaining it in such a way that your explanation can only be understood by someone who has a sophisticated understanding of that subject already.

    The following is a direct copy and paste from the article:

    The following theses are all paradigmatically metaphysical:

    “Being is; not-being is not” [Parmenides];
    “Essence precedes existence” [Avicenna, paraphrased];
    “Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone” [St Anselm, paraphrased];
    “Existence is a perfection” [Descartes, paraphrased];
    “Being is a logical, not a real predicate” [Kant, paraphrased];
    “Being is the most barren and abstract of all categories” [Hegel, paraphrased];
    “Affirmation of existence is in fact nothing but denial of the number zero” [Frege];
    “Universals do not exist but rather subsist or have being” [Russell, paraphrased];
    “To be is to be the value of a bound variable” [Quine]. — van Inwagen, Peter and Sullivan, Meghan

    Hmm... Okay. Cool.

    My personal favorites are the final three. Although "Existence is a perfection" has its charms too.
    Theologian

    Again, I am at a loss as to what occasioned your ridicule. Do you think that in order to understand the authors' point here, one needs to have studied all of the philosophers that they list, and understand the positions that each of those (selfconsciously crypitc) slogans designates? If you really think that, then I am sorry to say, you just don't know how to read.

    What I actually said was:

    an encyclopaedia article should be comprehensible to an intelligent lay person willing to put in a little effort. — Theologian
    Theologian

    You said that, but then you bristled at the suggestion that "an intelligent lay person" may have to put a little effort into looking something up in order to better understand what she is reading.

    Note, I said "better." One thing you don't seem to understand about reading is that readers with different backgrounds can get different things out of the same text, and even the same reader can get different things from subsequent readings. You won't always comprehend everything there is to comprehend about a text, and that is OK, as long as you comprehend a fair amount. Someone who has never heard about Aquinas' Five Ways will still come away with an understanding that those arguments are a typical example of a certain kind of traditional metaphysics (as explained in the rest of the article), and if he doesn't care to look them up right away, perhaps he'll do so later with this knowledge in mind.

    Try reading the article in its entirety and then get back to me. Of course, you do realize that I suggest this only because you have now earned sufficient enmity that I want to make you suffer...Theologian

    Yes, thank you, I am reading it now, and I am afraid I only have bad news for you. First, I like the article. Second, I find that it is fairly typical for SEP in rigor and style.
bold
italic
underline
strike
code
quote
ulist
image
url
mention
reveal
youtube
tweet
Add a Comment

Welcome to The Philosophy Forum!

Get involved in philosophical discussions about knowledge, truth, language, consciousness, science, politics, religion, logic and mathematics, art, history, and lots more. No ads, no clutter, and very little agreement — just fascinating conversations.