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What Is an Academic Question?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term "academic question" is an English expression meaning a question the answer to which is of no practical value. Although the answer to an academic question may be interesting, it usually relates to a circumstance which is either not commonplace or actually impossible. This concept is commonly expressed through the phrase "the question is academic," which dismisses a point as unrealistic or irrelevant.

To be an academic question, a question must relate to something which is either of little importance or simply untrue. For example, a lawyer might say "I'm not sure it's right to hang someone for stealing a loaf of bread, but since my client didn't steal that loaf of bread in the first place, the question is academic." The implication here is that although the issue of proportionality in punishment is an interesting one, it is not relevant to the debate at hand.

The previous example illustrates a common rhetorical strategy involving the academic question. The speaker is acknowledging a point — in this case, the idea that punishments for crimes are sometimes disproportionate — before quickly declaring it irrelevant. This can often be used to make a quick point against an opponent before moving back to the main thread of the discussion, effectively preventing the opponent from countering the point.

An academic question can also refer to a question which, while important, has been rendered pointless by the situation. "I can't decide whether I want a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich," one speaker might remark, to which another would reply, "That's an academic question, since we don't have any bread." In this case, the question is neither inherently irrelevant nor outside the scope of the discussion. Specific circumstances, however, have made the answer to the question unimportant. Whichever sandwich filling the speaker decides on, the outcome is the same, because he cannot actually make either.

The expression "a moot point" has a related meaning. It refers to a point which may be valid in itself, but which, because of circumstances, is unimportant. In legal terms, a matter is moot if it cannot have any legal effect, but the expression is often used casually to mean much the same thing as "academic question." For instance, someone examining a house might remark "I don't think this building would do very well in the event of a tornado, but since there aren't really any tornadoes here in Wales, it's a moot point."

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Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Apr 02, 2014

I think the fact that it's called an academic question implies that the answer would at least be enlightening or educational. I remember a scene in the movie "The Social Network" where two characters are arguing over the future of Facebook. The chief financial officer wants to find ways to generate revenue, while the chief executive officer wants the site to be in a constant state of evolution, like fashion.

The CFO realizes he's not going to win the argument, but he does say "Yes, fashion always changes, but yet they still find ways to sell pants." It's not really a question, but the point is academic. He's absolutely correct, but he's also not in a position to do anything about it.

By Inaventu — On Apr 02, 2014

I'm more apt to call a meaningless question a moot point, but I have been known to call it academic as well. I've always thought an academic question did have some merit, even if the answer wouldn't be particularly helpful. A moot point, on the other hand, would not contribute anything constructive to the argument.

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