Monday, February 6, 2012

The Idea of Concept Systems

An involuntary hiatus has prevented me from the pleasure of blogging on definitions for about a month.  I am now gradually getting back to normal, and am able to blog again.

Today I want to look at concept systems, and types of concept system.

In data modeling, only one type of concept system commonly appears - the generic concept system, containing Supertypes and Subtypes.  Very occasionally, the part-whole type of concept system can also be found.  The latter be seen in "bill of material" structures.  Strangely, the visual representation of a generic concept system and a part-whole concept system can look very similar in a data model.   I think that this leads data modelers to play down the idea of concept systems, and indeed the term "concept system" is not really met with in data modeling.

However, if we turn to the discipline of terminology, the idea of concept system is very prominent, and different types of concept systems are called out.  Let me quote from the Nordterm Guide to Terminology by Heidi Suonuuti (ISBN 952-9794-14-2):

"Concepts are not independent phenomena.  They are always related to other concepts in one way or another, and form concept systems which can vary from fairly simple to extremely complicated.  In terminology work, an analysis of the relations among concepts and an arrangement of them into concept systems, is a prerequisite for the successful drafting of definitions."

It is interesting that from the data modeler's perspective, concept systems are viewed only with respect to designing data storage solutions.  A terminologist, by contrast, is more interested in business information and how concepts are related within it - irrespective of how such information might be stored as data.

This makes me wonder about semantic modelers.  We hear a lot about semantics these days, and there is no doubt that semantics involves identifying concepts and providing definitions for them.  But finding the relationships between the concepts must be done prior to forming the definitions.  This is because a definition, in part, describes a concept's relations to other concepts in the concept system in which it is found.  So what good methodologies, notations, and techniques exist for describing or visualizing concept systems?  I am not sure we have yet got any good ones.   The danger is that we then fall back on the data modeling methodologies, notations, and techniques, which fail to capture significant semantic details.

But perhaps more important is that the terminologists have the idea of types of concept systems.  The generic and partitive types of concept system are the major ones, but there are others.  We will deal with the different types in a future post.

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