Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What is an Empty Concept?

In the last post, univocal, equivocal, and analogous terms were discussed.  It occurred to me afterwards that all of these classes of term presuppose terms that signify concepts.  But what about a term that does not signify any concept?  

At first this sounds a bit stupid.  Surely we would not waste our time on terms that do not signify a concept.  However, I have listened to several decades of marketing hype in Information Technology and I think that I have heard terms that do not signify anything - but which have some kind of emotive power.

I have tried to look for philosophical sources about terms that signify empty concepts, but have not been able to find any - probably due to the short time I have been able to invest in the search.  This makes me cautious, so I will confine the discussion of empty concepts mostly to data management.

First, if a term signifies a concept that can supposit for actual materially existing instances, then the concept is non-empty.  E.g. "Computer".  Unfortunately, in information management, we are mostly dealing with concepts who instances are immaterial, such as "Mortgage Backed Securities" (MBS's).  These exist, but not materially.  They are essentially contracts between human beings and/or institutions.   This way of thinking about empty concepts is now at a point where my metaphysics runs out.  

Let's try another approach.  If a concept can be empty, that implies it can possibly have content.  What "content" has traditionally been taken to mean by logicians (in the context of concepts) is a definition.  Thus, I would suggest that an empty concept is one with either (a) no definition; or (b) an unintelligible definition.
And it gets more complex.   Someone who uses a term can generally attempt to provide a definition for it.  They are very unlikely to admit there is no definition.   The definition provided is likely either a definition for a concept signified by another term or terms; or the definition supplied is unintelligible.  

Perhaps an unintelligible definition is more interesting.  Such a definition must fail significant quality checks,  Such checks may be those we formally use to assess all definitions, or may be checks based in the subject matter of what is being defined.  For instance, I suppose that "Platonic Forms" (which proposed real existence of concepts such as "table" or "chair") is a concept ultimately found to be unintelligible by philosophers.  More mundanely, I think "data owner" has an unintelligible definition insofar as it contains anything about "ownership".

This is yet another topic I will have to follow up. 

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