Conclusions and insights from description theory

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This paper discusses insights that can be drawn from the “Description theory”.


Idealism as the philosophical context (recap) 1

Concepts can be encoded in mental models. 2

Concepts can be associated with words. 2

Concepts can be encoded in documented models. 3

Mental and documented models are intertwined descriptions. 3

Reality is whatever we can describe. 4

Descriptions are types. 4

A description has both intended and received meanings. 4

Concepts are fragile things. 5

Conclusions regarding the “problem of universals”. 6

Further reading?. 6


Idealism as the philosophical context (recap)

Philosophers speak of “particulars”, meaning things (such as individual rose bushes) that we see as existing in the world.

And speak of “universals”, meaning descriptive concepts/properties/qualities (such as thorny, flowering) that we attribute to those things.

Do universals exist on their own? Classical philosophical positions on this question include realism, nominalism and idealism.


The triangle below rooted in psychology and general system theory, but is also an expression of idealism.

The idealist view is that we create universals as a means to understand and deal with particulars.

Idealism as a Philosophy


<create and use>               <idealise>

Rational beings   <observe and envisage>      Particulars


What philosophers call “universals” may also be called descriptive “types”, “concepts”, “properties” or “qualities”.

It is difficult to draw a meaningful distinction between these words.

But it seems different verbs suit different words. E.g. a thing instantiates a type, or embodies a concept, or exhibits a property or quality.

Concepts can be encoded in mental models

According to idealism, descriptive concepts or properties (such as thorniness, kindness and colour) are constructed in the mind.

Avancier’s idealism triangle


<create and use>                       <idealise>

Actors               <observe and envisage>           Realities


In other words, descriptive concepts or properties (such as thorniness, kindness and colour) are psycho-biological phenomena

Animals create and use descriptions of things in mental models.

Animal intelligence

Mental models

<create and use>                       <idealise>

Actors               <observe and envisage>           Realities


“How the brain works” indicates that nobody knows how mental models are stored and maintained.

But how is not important here; we use the term “mental model” without attempting to explain how it is made or remembered.

The fact is, we evidently do create memories as side effects of physical sensations and of thinking.

The basic mechanism for recording concepts appears to be sense memories, and associations between them.

Concepts can be associated with words

And in addition to what other animals can sense and recall, we remember the sounds of spoken words and sights of written words.

For example, you have encoded your sensation of seeing yellow things in a visual sense memory.

You have associated your visual sense memory with the sound sense memory of the spoken word "yellow".

You have also associated those two sense memories with the visual sense memory of the written word "yellow".


These three sense memories (and a few more) add up to your own personal concept of “yellow”.

Others have their own concept of yellow, and may place it in a slightly different part of the colour spectrum

Scientists and paint manufacturers may document different descriptions of yellow’s position in the spectrum.


All animals use mental models to understand things and predict or direct future events.

They somehow encode ideas about things in the form of sense memories.
We humans associate those memories with sense memories of names, such as “planet”.

We associate one named type (like “planet”) with other named types (“massive”) and discrete named things (like Mars and Venus).

Inexorably, we build up a huge a network of memories of things, names for things and names for types of thing.

Concepts can be encoded in documented models

The network of type and thing names in our brains must be flexible, because we continually update it.

For that reason, and probably for other reasons, the network is fuzzy and contradictory in places.

How to minimise fuzziness and contradictions?

Humans have found ways to translate mental models into documented models.

Literate intelligence

Documented models

<write and read>                      <idealise>

People               <observe and envisage >          Realities


Both mental models and documents models are encoded descriptions of things.

If the author of a book dies, the text retains a coded form of concepts the author had encoded (differently) in mind.

The translation from one code to another may be imperfect; the decoding by a reader may introduce further imperfections.

Mental and documented models are intertwined descriptions

We write a document by translating mental models into documented models - using some human language code.

We read a document by translating documented models into mental models - using some unknown biological code.

So, mental and documented models can be seen as translations of each other.


Both kinds of model encode concepts that are embodied in real things.

Human intelligence

Mental and documented models

<create and use>                   <idealise>

People              <observe and envisage>            Realities


You can locate concepts by retrieving memories and reading documents.

Some kind of decoding process is needed to make the concepts meaningful or useful.

Reality is whatever we can describe

“If you accept quantum physics at face value then at least one of two dearly held principles from the classical world must give.

One is realism, the idea that every object [particular] has properties [instances of universal types] that exist without you measuring them.

Anil Ananthaswamy “New Scientist” 13 December 2014


For most quantum physicists, a thing [a particular] does not have a property [a universal] until you conceive or measure it.

All measurements, descriptions, mental and documented models are products of actors.

Conversely, everything (structure or behaviour), or collection of things, that an actor describes is a reality to that actor.

Avancier’s idealism triangle

Realities can include actors and descriptions


<create and use>         <idealise>

Actors              <observe and envisage>           Realities


Actors not only remember past realities and observe present realities, but also envisage future and fictional realities.

Descriptions are types

To typify is to describe something; and less obviously, the converse is true; to describe something is to typify.

Once you have described one thing, there is no limited to the number of things that may exist or be created to resemble your description.

Avancier’s idealism triangle

1 description

<create and use>         <typifies some>

Actors              <observe and envisage>            Thing(s)


This applies all the way up from very simple types (e.g. a number), to very large and complex descriptions (e.g. a Boeing 737 specification).

You may think your description applies to one and only one real thing.

But you can always envisage a second instance of the same type - can't you?

A description cannot constrain the number of realities that can be judged as instantiating it.

A description has both intended and received meanings

Some say a communication event only acquires meaning after it has been received and used by an event receiver.

The meaning of a communication follows its use; it is the receiver who gives meaning to a communication event by using it.

Luhmann (1995): “Communication is made possible, so to speak, from behind, contrary to the temporal course of the process.”  

Baecker (2001):  the  principle of hermeneutics: that not the speaker but the listener decides on the meaning of a message”.


Avancier’s idealism triangle


<draw meanings from>                  <idealise>

Actors              <observe and envisage>           Realities


So, honey bees find the meaning in another bee’s dance by observing it, translating using it to find pollen.

We find the meaning of numbers when using them in arithmetic.

We find the meaning of a musical score in the experience of playing and hearing the music

We find the meaning of a software program when using the outputs of its run-time execution.


In this view, a description encodes concepts; but has no meaning on its own.

A meaning is extracted from a description by processing the description.

E.g. the meaning of a descriptive type is not found in the type name (rose).

Nor even found in the type elaboration (woody, thorny, bush) that names related types.
A meaning is only obtained when the type name is recognised and used by an actor.


Note however that view in these papers differs from the principle of hermeneutics.

We say a description meaningful at times when it is created (or encoded) or times when it is used (or decoded).

There is both intended meaning (to the creator of a description) and received meaning (to the user of description).

Avancier’s idealism triangle


<give meanings to>                  <idealise>

Actors              <observe and envisage>           Realities

Concepts are fragile things

It turns out the word “concept” is ambiguous; it is a coded symbol or the meaning given to it?

Avancier’s idealism triangle


<find concepts in>                        <idealise>

Actors              <observe and envisage>           Realities


Concepts can be encoded in mental, documented many other kinds of model.

A honey bee encodes the concepts of distance and direction in a dance.

A brain appears to be a loosely structured network in which concepts are recorded as sense memories and associated in malleable ways.

Concepts can be encoded in a neural network, in brain proteins, in speech, in documentation, in binary code in a computer, or in an orrery.


You may assume a concept is coded in the structure or behaviour of a mental, documented or other kind of model.

Yet different actors may decode that model in different ways, draw different concepts from it.

An actor encodes what is meaningful (A) to that actor in some kind of memory or record.

Another actor decodes that memory or record and finds something meaningful (B) in it.

A and B may be the same, but they are the same only in so far as the decoding process reflects the encoding process.

Conclusions regarding the “problem of universals”

The main point is: it is actors who create the concepts and properties of an observed or envisaged thing.

Concepts are encoded in mental and other kinds of model – and decoded when used.


Given a concept has encoded in models, any change to that model changes the concept in that place.

(I believe there is some evidence that we encode an observation or experience many times over – which surely insures against damage.)


If you destroy all copies of an encoded concept, then that concept disappears.

That is to say, the concept can no longer be recovered by processing, though it can be reinvented.


Some concepts are encoded in so many memories that there is no immediate prospect of them dying out.

So-called universal concepts (like triangle) seem to be those that have proven most accurate and useful in modelling things in the world.



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