[sc34wg3] Reification or Representation?

Steven R. Newcomb sc34wg3@isotopicmaps.org
25 Aug 2004 01:11:56 -0400

I'm looking for some softening of positions here, in preparation for
us all to adapt to various realities, including each others'

If you'll excuse me for grumbling from time to time, I can adjust to
literally any terminology for literally anything.  For example, it OK
with me if we call the act of bestowing all the privileges of
representation upon subjects that are relationships between other
subjects "bernersleeification".  For example, the act of creating a
topic that has an association as its subject is an act of

Similarly, I can adjust to neologisms like "proxification", if it will
help move us forward, instead of using the R word (reification) the
way I was trained to use it while getting a baccalaureate in

One thing to which topic mapping has sensitized me is the fact that
names don't matter; they are just ways to use breath, ink, and
bandwidth.  What matters is whether, when we communicate with each
other, we use the names we use to mean the same *things*.  Names are
nothing more or less than a necessary nuisance -- we use them only
because we don't have any alternative.  If it were available to us,
we'd certainly prefer to use mental telepathy; alas, it's not
available to us.  I want us to focus on the *things*, rather than on
their names.  Agreements about the *names* of things will be a natural
by-product of focusing on *things*.

We need to approach the *things* -- the subjects that we have to
wrestle with as we do this work, such as the subject of
bernersleeification as I've defined it above -- with respect for the
possibility that, if we are willing to see things together, they may
surprise us, turning out to be different than some or all of us

In this conversation, I am going to try to avoid using the
<grumble>perfectly good philosophical jargon until ham-handed computer
scientists hijacked and grotesquely specialized it</grumble> term,
"reification".  [One thing on which Lars Marius and I do indeed agree
is that this word seems to stir up trouble.  The benefits it provides
(what benefits are those, anyway?)  are not worth the trouble it
causes, apparently.  Weird, but true.]

Now I'd like to discuss (1) representation and (2) proxification.  I'd
also like to discuss how (3) bernersleeification is related to both of
these things.

(1) representation: I agree with Murray.  "Representation", for me, is
    symbolization.  Symbols mean what they mean regardless of their
    inherent properties, and their inherent properties need not
    correspond to, or be analogous to, the properties of whatever it
    is that they symbolize.  For example, English words are symbols --
    they represent things -- and the symbol "clamber" has, as one of a
    sequence of seven properties, the letter "b", but there is nothing
    about the letter "b" that in any way corresponds to, or is
    analogous to, the notion of clambering.

    Note: If you don't like my definition of "representation", that's
          OK with me.  I'm interested in the concept I've just defined
          as "representation", and I don't care whether we call it
          "representation" or "yangtabulationism".  I'm trying to
          focus on the *thing*; I don't care about the *name*.

(2) proxification: This is the same as representation, in the sense
    that the proxy of a subject can (and should) be regarded as a
    symbol for that subject.  But it's not just representation; it's
    more than that.  The proxy of a subject has at least some of the
    same properties (or attributes, or whatever -- let's have that
    argument separately, please) as the subject itself.  Or, rather,
    the proxy has properties that are somehow analogous to some of the
    properties of the actual subject, so that the proxy can be used to
    guide certain kinds of manipulations in a way that, if it were
    possible, the subject itself would presumably guide in an
    analogous fashion.

    If we see topic maps as sets of subject proxies -- as graphs of
    nodes whose asserted relationships to each other are analogous to
    someone's opinions about how the subjects of those proxies are
    related to each other -- then such views of topic maps are clearly
    cases of proxification, as opposed to mere representation.  The
    reason I say this is that the properties of the proxies --
    including the properties that are connections to other proxies --
    are analogous to the properties of the actual subjects.

(3) bernersleeification: The operational definition of
    bernersleeification depends on whether you regard a topic as a
    mere representation of a subject, or as a proxification thereof.
    If you're only concerned with representation, then it doesn't
    matter if the result of bernersleeification is two or more
    representatives for the same subject (that subject being the
    relationship represented by the association that you've created a
    topic for in order to bernersleeify it).  It's OK, for example, to
    have multiple information items, one a TMDM association and the
    other a TMDM topic, that each represent that relationship, and
    that have special connections to each other.

    On the other hand, if you're trying to do proxification, the
    result of bernersleeification needs to be a single proxy.  If it's
    not a single proxy, then, if nothing else, there are either
    spurious connections between the multiple proxies of the same
    subject (connections that I'm calling "spurious" because they are
    not analogous to relationships between subjects).  (But *having*
    such spurious non-relationships between two or more proxies for
    the same subject is whole lot better than *not* having them.  The
    latter case, where there are multiple unconnected proxies for the
    same subject, is analogous to "subject schizophrenia", because
    that single subject appears to have different personalities,
    depending on which of its proxies you happen to be using as its

-- Steve

Steven R. Newcomb, Consultant
Coolheads Consulting

Co-editor, Topic Maps International Standard (ISO 13250)
Co-drafter, Topic Maps Reference Model 


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