Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rethinking Common vs. Technical Terms in Definitions and Some New Definition Rules

After I posted the blog on "Common vs. Technical Terms in Definitions and Some New Definition Rules" I was contacted by Suzanne DalBon, who had a different view on this topic.  Suzanne kindly put it that my view might apply in certain situations, but that handing primacy to common terms might cause chaos in other situations.  

The first point that Suzanne raised is that the emphasis on common terms in definitions will lead to inconsistency.  There are simply too many common terms (words and expressions) to choose from.

A major issue in collaborative environments where any kind of content is produced is the need to achieve consistency.  Consistency in outputs is needed for users (readers) of the content to be able to reliably use it.  Such consistency is remarkably difficult to achieve.  Heavy editorial control is one way, but such control can poison any collaborative environment where contributors are providing their time and effort on voluntary basis.  Of course, a collaborative environment is very likely to be the case for the development of definitions in enterprise environments.  The editor of a commercial encyclopedia can be expected to whip his contributors into providing a consistent format, and has the power of the purse at his disposal.  Further, his contributors would have been chosen in the first place not simply for their substantive ("domain") knowledge, but also for their literary tradecraft.

Any directive to use common terms as much as possible will result in inconsistent content development.  Not only is it a question of having many different synonyms of common terms, but there is also the problem of subtle differences when common terms are used.  English is especially prone to this.  For instance, English terms derived from Anglo-Saxon seem masculine, while English terms derived from Latin seem feminine.  Dr Samuel Johnson gave the example of "hearty welcome" having exactly the same roots as "cordial reception".  Think for a moment about the different images these conjure up for you - even if you are not a native English speaker.     

Suzanne's suggested approach is to use more general technical terms in definitions wherever possible.   I had been thinking about descriptive definitions in my original blog post.  In essential definitions, more general terms are used because the formula for producing the definition is Definition = Superordinate Genus + Specific Difference.  However, essential definitions are comparatively rare.  Nevertheless, as pointed out in previous blog posts here, concepts are always found in concept systems.  Therefore, we should describe a concept in terms of the closest concepts to it.  These will be the ones that have a direct relationship to it.  For a technical term, it is unlikely that a common term will signify a concept that is directly related to the concept signified by the term being defined.  So a common term will be just too general to be precise.  Even so, we should still avoid using technical terms that are more detailed than the term being defined (e.g. the parts of a whole, or the subspecies of a species).  Of course, this may be unavoidable in some cases, so we cannot make it a hard and fast rule.

Suzanne also noted that if we have to define a concept using more general technical terms, this is a good way of surfacing technical terms that have not yet been recognized as requiring a definition.  It is a very good way of validating the completeness of a special vocabulary.  

So to summarize our revised rules for using terms in a definition:

  1. Use more general terms found in the same special vocabulary, whose concepts have a direct relationship to the concept being defined.  Inform the editor if any term is not yet defined.
  2. If no appropriate term is available in (1), then use even more general terms within the same special vocabulary as the term to be defined.  Inform the editor if any term is not yet defined.
  3. If no appropriate term is available in (2), then use a more specific term within the same special vocabulary as the term to be defined.  Inform the editor if any term is not yet defined.
  4. If no appropriate term is available in (3), then use a common term.  However, editorial control may be needed to rationalize the use of common terms across definitions.
I suppose that these rules presuppose the existence of an editor.  But that is a topic for future blog posts.

1 comment:

  1. I stumbled on this post while googling for Philosophies on coining technical terms to replace/clarify vague/ambiguous common terms. (e.g. Philosophy of Language, Linguistics, etc)

    [I see that your blog is somewhat parallel to mine (Existential Programming[1]), and both use examples from financial IT system analysis. My project these days is to teach computer programmers the usefulness of learning Western Philosophy. Thus, I seek established ideas from philosophy to inspire new techniques rather than simply publishing my own personal inventions. Most of the time, I take a Philosophy 101 idea and show its potential applications, but sometimes I have problems I've encountered in my consulting career for which I still seek solutions, and this is one of them.]

    I was wondering when and how to manage the *social aspect* of introducing new technical terms to replace existing terms. I was led to this question after watching a logic lecture[2], where it was pointed out that language is a set of social conventions that prevent one from unilaterally (re)defining the meaning of a word. It reminded me of a situation where different groups (within a bank) used the same word (e.g. Facility) for different KINDS of things, and they were constantly talking past each other (and worse their computer systems corrupted data until I uncovered the problem).

    The social problem was that each group would not change the way it used particular terms even after being shown that it confused others. It was always the "other" group that misused the term. Go figure.

    My personal inclination is to create new terms with specific meanings using words no one has used before so that when people encountered the term they would be forced to look up the meaning rather than assume they knew what it meant.
    However, as I say, I am looking for published philosophical wisdom to survey the gotchas if not actually provide solutions.