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The free online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has achieved what Wikipedia can only dream of...

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"The internet is an information landfill. Somewhere in it—buried under piles of opinion, speculation, and misinformation—is virtually all of human knowledge. But sorting through the trash is difficult work. Even when you have something you think is valuable, it often turns out to be a cheap knock-off.

The story of how the SEP is run, and how it came to be, shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet—or at least a less trashy corner of it. A place where actual knowledge is sorted into a neat, separate pile instead of being thrown into the landfill. Where the world can go to learn everything that we know to be true. Something that would make humans a lot smarter than the internet we have today."


"Speaking of holes, the SEP has a rather detailed entry on the topic of holes, and it rather nicely illustrates one of Wikipedia’s key shortcomings. Holes present a tricky philosophical problem, the SEP entry explains: A hole is nothing, but we refer to it as if it were something. (Achille Varzi, the author of the holes entry, was called upon in the US presidential election in 2000 to weigh in on the existential status of hanging chads.) "

Thank you for this link!

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is fascinating:

The online SEP has humble beginnings. Edward Zalta, a philosopher at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, launched it way back in September 1995, with just two entries.

That makes it positively ancient in internet years. Even Wikipedia is only 14. Sites that have been around 20 years mostly belong to brands that predate the internet—like Bloomberg or MTV—or they’re old sites that just happen to still work, like the classic Space Jam.

The SEP is neither pre-internet, nor is it ossified. It now contains nearly 1,500 entries, and changes are made daily. The site gets over a million page views per month—a respectable number, given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs. The American Library Association’s Booklist review called it “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print, the 10-volume offerings from Routledge and Macmillan—and that was nearly a decade ago.

John Perry, the director of the center, was the one who first suggested a dictionary of philosophical terms. But Zalta had bigger ideas. He and two co-authors later described the challenge in a 2002 paper (pdf, p. 1):

A fundamental problem faced by the general public and the members of an academic discipline in the information age is how to find the most authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date information about an important topic.

That paper is so old that it mentions “CD-ROMs” in the second sentence. But for all the years that have passed, the basic problem remains unsolved.  The three requirements the authors list—”authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date”—are to information what the “impossible trinity” is to economics. You can only ever have one or two at once. It is like having your cake, eating it, and then bringing it to another party.


To achieve authority, several dozen subject editors—responsible for broad areas like “ancient philosophy” or “formal epistemology”—identify topics in need of coverage, and invite qualified philosophers to write entries on them. If the invitation is accepted, the author sends an outline to the relevant subject editors.


To be fair, Stanford does pay most of the operating costs. But the SEP has a paid staff of only three—Zalta, Nodelman, and Allen—plus five other Stanford employees who spend 20% of their time on technical support. Neither the authors, nor the dozens of subject editors, get so much as a dime for their troubles.

 And all the authors and editors I spoke to seemed perfectly happy with this arrangement, even though some entries are a long time in the making. Siegel, the philosophy of mind editor, said that most take at least a few months from start to finish. The longest one she has overseen “stretched out for some years.”

There are a few reasons why contributors are willing to put in the time. First, these are already things that they are deeply interested in and enjoy. Peter Adamson, author of the entries on Al-Kindi and the Theology of Aristotle, noted that he had already written books on these topics. Siegel mentioned that being an editor allowed her to “keep up with interesting segments of the field.”

“I am very lucky to be able to do philosophy for a living,” writes Adamson, “and I am interested in doing things that would justify why I should be allowed to make a living in this rather nice way, where I am effectively paid to do something that I would do for free, as a hobby.”


 To pay running expenses not covered by Stanford, the team obtained nearly $2 million in grants over the first 15 years. But they wanted something more sustainable, so they hired a business consultant (this is Stanford, after all), Javier Ergueta, and he proposed an idea that now provides around a third of the budget. The SEP asks academic libraries to make a one-time contribution. That doesn’t get them access to the SEP, since it’s already freely accessible, but they enjoy some extra “member benefits,” like the ability to use their own branding on a version of the encyclopedia, and to save the full archives.

Moreover, their money goes into an SEP endowment, managed by the same company that takes care of Stanford University’s endowment of over $20 billion. If the SEP ever shuts down, Stanford promises to give the libraries that contributed to SEP all their money back, with interest. “It became a no-risk investment for the libraries, and it’s a way for them to invest in open access,” says Zalta.

Libraries were enthusiastic. The SEP was able to raise over $2 million from the long list of contributors, and Stanford added $1 million to the library endowment. The university also provides 60% of SEP’s budget—not much to ask from such a rich institution. The remaining 10% comes from a “friends of the SEP” program, which for $5, $10, or $25 a year lets individual users download nicely formatted PDFs of the articles, good for printing or archiving for personal use.

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