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I had a recent, valid question put on hold, (with some pedantic comments) but it seemed to raise a larger question about the scope of literature.

Essentially, the people who closed the question are making the argument that philosophical basis for any given work of literature are off-topic on this stack.

But it seems to me that one can't fully discuss much of the work of poets and serious novelists without considering the philosophical basis and origin of the ideas.

  • Is the philosophy behind Ozymandias off-topic, even if the source of the idea in the poem derives from a source considered literary?

The same goes for just about every other great work of literature.

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I consider the following types of questions as on topic here:

  • Questions about the origin of an idea or quote that can be found in a work of literature, regardless whether that source is purely literary or purely philosophical. Since questions about an author's life as an author are on topic, questions about influences, be they literary or philosophical, should be accepted on our site.
  • Questions about whether a specific work of literature exemplifies a specific philosophical school.
  • If an author wrote both philosophical works and literary works (e.g. novels or drama, as in Sartre's case), questions about the relationship between the two types of works should be on topic. For example, whether the two types of work contradict each other in certain ways or not.

The existence of Philosophy Stack Exchange does not automatically make these questions off topic here.


With regard to the specific questions mentioned in this meta question:

  • The second version of the question about Thomas Gray's poem is not ostensibly about philosophy; it just asks for the source of what is assumed to be a quote, regardless of the nature of that source. That should be fine.
  • The original version of that question asked, "What are the foundations of this idea?" This was interpreted as "philosophical foundations" in some of the comments. In addition, it asked for the foundations of the idea as such, i.e. potentially outside its literary context (instead of asking where Gray got it from), and this is indeed a question about the history of ideas or philosophy that is out of scope on this site.
  • The hypothetical question about "the philosophy behind Ozymandias" is too vague and potentially too broad to serve as a good example in this discussion.
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I sympathize with your frustration over the closure of the Thomas Gray question and I think that the process would benefit from being less adversarial.

What the close voters seem to be concerned about is that a question might use its literary content as a pretext for asking about some other topic, and if this is allowed then any question would be on topic provided you can find some literary work that refers to it in some way. The original version of the Thomas Gray question said:

Ignorance is Bliss. This is famous proverb [... from] Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ [...] What are the foundations of this idea?

The close voters interpreted this as if it was not asking about the poem, but only about the foundations of the idea, and so it looked to them as if the poem had been included as a pretext for making it appear to be on-topic.

However, it only takes a small rephrasing, from “What are the foundations of this idea?” to “To what religious or philosophical idea is Gray alluding?” to make the question unarguably on-topic. And very likely this is what you meant by the question all along.

I think that the process would be less frustrating if voters were braver about editing posts rather than closing them. When there’s the opportunity to make a tiny edit like this in order to make the post on topic, why not make it? Voters are generally in a better position to make the edit, since they have opinions about why the post is off-topic in its current state, and because the OP’s first language may not be English and so they may not find it easy to understand or meet the voters’ requirements.

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    You make a fair point about editing vs closing, but AFAIK the question-closing system is designed to encourage edits. On some SE sites at least, the desired workflow is close-edit-reopen rather than simply edit (presumably so that a question doesn't get answered while it's off-topic). As one of the close-voters, I wouldn't have made that edit because I thought it would've changed the question too much potentially against OP's intent. (I also wasn't attempting to second-guess OP's motives or accuse them of using a pretext.) – Rand al'Thor Mar 5 at 15:43
  • I don't insist on 'pretext'—read 'irrelevancy' or 'red herring' instead. – Gareth Rees Mar 5 at 16:44
  • I resent having to "dance for my dinner" and make concessions over an unreasonable closure. The reality is that any form of that question should be on topic, whether "what is the origin?" "what is the basis?" "what is the meaning?", because a good answer will include all of that information. (And the source here, as with Ozymandias, is extremely important and influential.) – DukeZhou Mar 5 at 17:02
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    @DukeZhou: I agree. – Gareth Rees Mar 5 at 17:05
  • What's your opinion on the original heading. (My thought was using simply "Ignorance is Bliss" would bring Stack up at the top of any search, just behind the wiki for the quote, which motivated this question.) But right now I don't want to disturb the waters, since the question has been reopened. I see question on some of the hard science stacks with similar title convention from time to time. – DukeZhou Mar 5 at 17:18
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    My own opinion is that it's a good idea to have the work or the author in the title, for the benefit of anyone looking at a list of post titles and wanting to know what they are about. But if you think your title was better, go for it. – Gareth Rees Mar 5 at 17:42
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"Ozymandias" is on-topic, so asking about the philosophical underpinnings of "Ozymandias" would be on-topic. It's a question about "Ozymandias", which is a work of literature and therefore on-topic. (Such a question might potentially be too broad, or unclear, or primarily opinion-based, but it wouldn't be off-topic.)

Asking about a philosophical idea, without reference to a particular work of literature (or to genres or broader history of literature), probably wouldn't be on-topic. Asking about the origin of the idea that lack of knowledge is a happy state in which to be ... doesn't seem to be about literature, per se.

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    (As an aside, I posit that you're perfectly aware that a question about the philosophical underpinnings of "Ozymandias" wouldn't be closed as off-topic. Which makes this meta question seem somewhat passive-aggressive.) – Rand al'Thor Mar 4 at 19:21
  • I think the response to my perfectly legitimate question on the source of the phrase in Gray was overtly aggressive. What I see now is treading water holding to a flawed position rather than acknowledgement that the closure was in error, (one of the reasons I tend to avoid participating on Lit.) – DukeZhou Mar 4 at 19:36
  • "The phrase, as you say, comes from Thomas Gray's poem." sounds pretty passive-aggressive to me. – DukeZhou Mar 4 at 20:02
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    @DukeZhou Okay, you're a moderator and you very much know that people offering critique on your question based on problems they see with it isn't "agressive". You can disagree with the critique and explain why you do (and be very much right with this), but please let's not immediately interpret people expressing concerns about the on-topicness of a question as an affront to your personal and academic integrity. That's not all that fruitful. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Mar 4 at 22:30
  • @CahirMawrDyffrynæpCeallach a snarky distinction between "phrase" and the "idea" behind a phrase feels pretty passive aggressive to me. (i.e. using semantics and petty distinctions to call the judgement of the OP into question.) – DukeZhou Mar 4 at 22:34
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    @DukeZhou Sorry, but you seem to be reading way too much into people close-voting a question that they deem off-topic and explaining why they do. And frankly, too much than what is god for you, the site, and everyone else. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Mar 4 at 22:37
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    @DukeZhou Aggressive, snarky, hostile, petty? Really?!? I do think your original question was off-topic and the new version is on-topic. (So does Christophe, in the answer you accepted.) But there's nothing personal about it, at least from my point of view. I'm not calling your judgement into question, except in the way everyone does whenever they vote to close anything ("you think this is on-topic but I disagree"). It's clear we disagree over some scope boundaries, but do you have to attack me over it? I was only trying to explain clearly why I feel (after much thought) that it's off-topic. – Rand al'Thor Mar 5 at 5:35

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