Nominalist or Realist? Mentalistic or Conceptualistic?

Anytime I start thinking deeply about meaning and context and communication, I begin to look about me for guidance and reassurance. A lot of really smart people have spent a long time thinking about and debating what these things are and how they work. Hoping that someone else will provide some map through this ongoing discussion, I keep looking. Unfortunately, the more broadly I search, the more I am led to the conclusion that a lot of the discussion has fallen into the trap of endless “splitting of hairs”.

This is not to say that these arguments aren’t important, and that the points being made aren’t valid. I am nowhere near being “read in” sufficiently to actually have an opinion on them. The one observation I’ll make about the larger discussion is that I think the terminology has gotten away from itself (but perhaps this is just an observation by a naive someone outside of the context).

I feel frutsrated in that I’m trying to consider the ideas of those who’ve spent more time on aspects of this than I. But because of the apparent need to differentiate one’s ideas from another’s, this invention of terminology has made large parts of the discussion nearly opaque to me, and therefore  ultimately of limited utility to my purposes. The shear volume of references to arguments and counter-arguments has intimidated me beyond measure, as I realize that to form my own opinion from the broader philosophical discussion will require years of reading.

A case in point is highlighted by this excerpt from a book I was pointed to by someone on a separate discussion page (David Blair’s book Wittgenstein, Language and Information: “Back to the Rough Ground!”). In the span of two or three paragraphs, while I got the basic drift, I find myself confronted with three competing schools of thought on meaning:

Nominalists: who appear to think all language is “names”

Realists: who appear to think there are “universal” ideas outside of anybody’s mental conception (I think I missed the point on this one)

Mentalistics/Conceptualistics: who appear to think (taking the stated criticism of the view as a valid description) that meaning is closely held and private to a person.

I have to admit, of the three (and I don’t know that these are really all mutually exclusive from this short passage), that the mentalist view is probably closer to my own opinion. However, before declaring my allegiance to any particular school of thought or philosophical category, it appears I have a lot more reading to do.

So instead of trying to align myself formally with a pre-defined family of philosophical ideas, I think I’ll just continue to state my own case here for what I think these things are.

I know software development, that’s my angle into the discussion, having been writing software for nearly three decades. Software development is in fact less of an individual philosophical endeavor, and in my mind is much more influenced by social and cultural factors. They key question and the thing I find fascination with, however, is right at the threshold between how the rigidity of the software application interacts with the fluidity of the social environment in which it is designed and used.

The reason philosophy, and in particular philosophy of language, comes into play is that the development of the software application is entirely dependent on capturing and codifying the intended user community’s shared conception of reality. This “conception” is something larger than the individual thoughts of a single person, but represents the communicaton of all members of the community, hence it really should be considered an “act of language.”

This is why I place so much focus here on what I call “context”. The creation and maintenance of context by humans, how it shapes the terminology and symbols, the projected simulation or model of reality that it constrains and enforces, these are the things that I feel drive any software development.

Placing context first, then what I consider “terminology” comes next. This is the set of key ideas or concepts within the context. The most interesting (to me) of the examples of terminology within a context fall into two categories. First are the ones that are truly idiosynchratic coins-of-phrase which, if considered by anyone outside of the context  would never invoke the concept assigned within the context.

Second are the concepts which are so idiosynchratic to the context and complex that they cannot be summed up by a single term. (See my case study regarding selection of terminology at the IRS). These are particularly difficult to accomodate when writing software due to the multitude of terms coined and lengthy descriptions necessary to differentiate and identify them. In other words, there are some concepts in some contexts that cannot be named, or which have taken on names with little obvious connection to a general (external) discussion.

While I think I am probably not in the “nominalist” camp, does this make me a “realist”? a “mentalistic”? a “conceptualistic”?  I don’t know. I guess only further reading and continuing to elucidate my own ideas here will be able to determine that.


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