Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thinking About Concepts and Terms

I was noodling around with stipulative and legislative definitions, and started to diagram out what I was finding.  It occurred to me that I have not really had a rethink about diagramming the relationships between the concepts involved in definition work for a while.  Pretty soon I found that I lacked some of the fundamentals, and had to get them sorted out before I could deal with stipulative and legislative definitions.

The result of that effort is the cartoon shown in Figure 1.  I am calling it a "cartoon" because I have not had time yet to work it up in some formal notation, such as conceptual graph.  I also realize it is incomplete.  For instance, I have not had time to figure out where to put Nominal Definition.

Figure 1: Relations of Concept and Term

In Figure 1 all supertype-subtype relations are indicated by solid lines, with the label "is genus of", indicating how the superordinate genus is related to the subordinate genus.  This is to distinguish them from other kinds of relationships.

So let us look at what we have (in no particular order):

Term: a linguistic symbol that signifies a concept.

Common Term: a term that signifies a concept that is understood by the general population.

Technical Term: a term that signifies a concept that is understood by a restricted community, and exists within a specialized context.

Existing Term: a term that has been in use prior to a specific point in time.

New Term: a term that is created at a particular point in time, and did not exist prior to this point in time.

Interpretant: a mind or machine that understands a particular term to signify a particular concept.

Terminologist: a person or group of people that assigns a term to concept.  The term may be an Existing Term or New Term.

Concept:  cognition of a universal as distinguished from the particulars which it unifies [from Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy, under "Conception"].

Previously Existing Concept: a concept that exists prior to a particular time, irrespective of whether it is known to exist or not.

Not Previously Existing Concept: a concept that does not exist prior to a particular time.  [It was this that I was interested in with respect to stipulative and legislative definitions.]

Previously Known Concept: a Previously Existing Concept that is known to exist.  It is known by at least someone.  However, there is no guarantee it is known by everyone.
Not Previously Known Concept: a Previously Existing Concept that is not known to exist.  It might be unknown to everyone, or to a specific community.

Real Definition: an explanation of a concept.


Well, this is interesting, but within my preliminary definitions some terms remain undefined. 

They are: linguistic symbol; general population; community; context [ugh! I hate that one]; time [more difficult than "context"]; mind; machine; signify; person; group of people; universal; particular; exist.

I think I am also missing a taxonomy (or other concept set) under Previously Known Concept, Not Previously Known Concept to indicate "known / not known by whom". 

I will have to figure out all of this in the future - too late today.

Other Notes
  • ·      It is interesting to see how Term has two taxonomies: Common Term, Technical Term; and Existing Term, New Term.   These seem to be fully external to each other ("orthogonal"), which introduces complexity.

  • ·     I wanted to show that the question "what does T mean?" where "T" is some term is a very suspect question.  I do not think the diagram shows it.  I think this is a false assumption of univocity, which is something else. Oh well.

This is very much a work in progress.  I will push on from here to stipulative and legislative definitions.

1 comment:

  1. The graphical representation of concepts and terms in the context of communities is a novel and valuable representation technique.

    There are two aspects of business terms that differ from scientific terms and thus make it more difficult to reach a common understanding in a community. Business terms are “manmade”. They are not defined by nor bounded by laws of nature such as biology, chemistry or physics. Some are defined based on a formula such as mortgage backed securities but the formulas themselves are subject to interpretations as well. Secondly, the meaning of a business term varies by context, time and community. Therefore the meaning of these terms is more dynamic and volatile. These factors are not addressed in the creation and maintenance of business terms. A term should have attributes that reflect its currency (freshness), its shelf life, who was present at the time of creation (founding fathers) and the place and conditions when the term was conceived. Without this environmental information, a definition of a term is arbitrary and random. I think the “cartoon” is a way to capture this important information as an instance of creation of the term.

    I suggest that legislative terms are even more difficult to map. Legislation is an attempt to bring ideologies to compromise and when written down they are purposely vague and subject to interpretation. Terms are selected to represent intent rather than consensus or precision. Selecting terms is more art and rhetoric than science. However, the graphical representation can be used to examine and expose the reasons for misunderstandings and interpretations but it is unlikely legislators will adopt this discipline for writing legislation following this rigor.

    I think this representation is a valuable technique and worthy of further exploration. Great idea!