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Re: [ontolog-forum] to concept or not to concept, is this a question?

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Fri, 15 Jun 2007 19:13:25 -0400
Message-id: <46731D15.5030103@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Kathy, Don, Paola, Barry, et al.,    (01)

As many philosophers, such as Kant, Peirce, Wittgenstein,
Whitehead, and others have observed, the common words in
natural languages have no precise definitions, no sharp
boundaries, and no necessary and sufficient conditions
for their use.    (02)

That point is also true about words from ordinary language
that have been adopted by various branches of mathematics
and science.  And even in those fields, the meanings of
words evolve over time.  (Even the most mathematical of
all words, 'number', has a very complex history leading up
to such terms as 'surreal number', etc.)    (03)

And even for specialties, there are often barriers to
legislating any official meanings for some of the most
important terms.  For example, the oil industry has no
universally accepted definition of the term 'oil well',
geologists have no officially accepted definition of the
term 'geological stratum', and medicine has no official
definition of the words 'life' and 'death'.    (04)

Some comments on the comments:    (05)

KBL> I teach Systems Engineering.  A very important part of the
 > systems engineering process is to develop an Operational Concept
 > (also called Opcon or Conops or Operational Concept).  It is a
 > maxim in Systems Engineering that if you don't get the conops
 > right, the system development effort is doomed to (often very
 > expensive) failure....    (06)

That is a perfectly legitimate use of the word 'concept'.  I have
no quarrel with any such use of the word 'concept' or of any other
common word in any language.  My only recommendation is that the
use of such words should fall within the range of uses that are
cited in a good unabridged dictionary.  I also have no objection
to anyone taking a common word and coining a new use that extends
its common uses in any reasonable way (i.e., by means of the usual
techniques of metaphor, metonymy, and extensions to newly discovered
or invented subjects).    (07)

What I do object to is the attempt to legislate meanings for common
words with the expectation that those definitions should be given
more weight and privilege than any other definition listed in a
typical dictionary.    (08)

DC> If the group feels that your criteria should be strictly observed,
 > then I shall continue to learn here, but in silence.    (09)

PDM> I am  sure John was simply trying to help us focus on the topic
 > at hand.  It's so easy to digress... It's great to have a new voice
 > chime in... I'm sure he did not mean to shut anyone up.    (010)

Yes.  I definitely did not want to shut down debate, questions, and
contributions by anyone.  But I was hoping to make the speculation
more concrete by citing examples and quoting previous publications.    (011)

People who are not familiar with the literature may know many good
quotations, but anybody can cite examples, and anyone who can read
English can look in a dictionary and find better definitions than
many of the ones that were proposed in this thread.    (012)

BS> Several groups are now arguing that the word 'concept' be used
 > with a precise definition.  The problem is that these different
 > groups are advocating incompatible precise definitions.    (013)

I certainly agree with those observations.    (014)

BS> I can think of no simpler solution to this problem than to
 > abandon a word that has become tainted in this way.    (015)

But I don't agree with that suggestion, because there is probably
no common word in English or any other language that has not become
"tainted" in similar ways.    (016)

BS> People who mean 'idea' should use the word 'idea'. People who
 > mean 'term' should use the word 'term'. People who mean 'meaning'
 > should use the word 'meaning'.    (017)

But the words 'idea' and 'meaning' have been used in many more
confused, confusing, and tainted ways than the word 'concept'.    (018)

To clarify and extend my previous recommendations:    (019)

  1. I have no objection to anyone using any common words in senses
     that are listed in any common dictionary.  That includes the
     words 'concept', 'idea', 'meaning', etc.    (020)

  2. I have no objection to anyone adopting a common word like
     'concept' and giving it a technical meaning for use within
     a given document or adding a qualifier to coin a technical
     term such as 'operational concept' for use within a field.    (021)

  3. I also have no objection to discussions of how a word is
     typically used *provided that* the discussants at least look
     at how the word is actually used.  Any decent dictionary
     is a good place to start finding examples and definitions.
     Another possibility is to type the word to Google and look
     at what comes back.    (022)

  4. But I do object to endless debate about meanings of words
     without any recourse to data of any kind.  And I have very
     strong objections to people trying to legislate definitions
     for common words with the expectation that anybody else
     should pay attention to their legislation.  That is like
     the Indiana legislator who tried to get the value of pi
     declared to be 3.2    (023)

John    (024)

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