The philosophy of description

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This paper suggests system architects naturally adopt a philosophical position called idealism, rather than other philosophies to be discussed below.


Three philosophical positions (recap). 1

Which position fits system describers and designers?. 2

System describers as idealists. 3

Conclusions and remarks. 4


Three philosophical positions

Philosophers speak of:

·         particulars” - things (such as individual rose bushes) that we see as existing in the world.

·          universals” - concepts/properties (such as thorny, flowering) that we attribute to those things.


Philosophers disagree about whether concepts/properties exist in reality or merely in thought and discourse.

Philosophical positions may be broadly divided into “realism”, “nominalism” and “idealism”.


Realism – properties are mind-independent

Both Platonic and Aristotelian realists believe that concepts/properties/types are independent of any mind.


Nominalism – properties are merely labels in the mind

Nominalists assert that things exist, but concepts/properties/types don’t exist as separable entities.

When we assert that several particulars (roses) share a universal (thorny), they share only the label we give them, not a real quality.

Nominalists believe what we conceive as properties or types are only names or labels attached in our minds to our perceptions of things.


Idealism – properties are abstractions from reality

Idealists assert that reality, as far as we can know it, is constructed by mental processes.

The philosophical position called idealism may be represented in a triangle.

Idealism triangle


<create and use>                 <idealise>

Rational beings   <observe and envisage >     Particulars


Idealists see the problem of whether types like “number” exist as a problem of psychology and epistemology, rather than philosophy or metaphysics.

They say universals are types or descriptions, conceived by actors, that exist in mental and documented models.

And so, if all actors and their products (including computers) were destroyed, then all universals, types and descriptions would disappear.

Which position fits system describers and designers?

Cognitive psychologists assume brains hold mental models of the world – of things and how they behave.

System architects are concerned to build documented models of how “systems” behave in the world.

Both consider models to be separate from modelled realities, and testable against those realities.

Which philosophical position best fits us - the describers and designers of human and computer activity systems?

The realist position?

Most quantum physicists reject the realist position.

“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.

The other is locality, the principle that nothing in the universe can influence anything else “instantaneously” faster than the speed of light.

For most quantum physicists, it’s realism that has to give.” Anil Ananthaswamy “New Scientist” 13 December 2014


In any case, a psycho-biologist or system theorists must surely also reject the realist position also.

It elevates psycho-biological phenomena into a magical or mystical form.

There is no evidence that universals existed before/without life, no reason to suppose it, or need to suppose it.

Occam's razor should cut it out.

The nominalist position?

Surely, any psycho-biologist or system theorist must reject this position?

Our seeing roses as thorny is what helps us to avoid pricking our fingers.

The label “thorny” is irrelevant; what matters is that we understand what thorny means.

The idealist position

The “Description theory” paper is based on biology, psychology and general system theory.

It provides a rational explanation for how qualities and quantities emerged during evolution as psycho-biological phenomena.

It requires no magic, mysticism or god; it does not even require humans to exist.

Since it is primarily a scientific position, there is no need to favour a particular philosophy.

However, the position does correspond to the idealist position that any description, concept or property is abstracted by minds from things in reality.

And a large and complex description is a large and compound concept or property abstracted from things in reality.

An idealist ontology


<create and use>                         <idealise>

Actors                    <observe and envisage>                   Realities


This triangle presents an idealist system architect’s take on general system theory.

General system theory as idealism

Theoretical systems

<create and use>                       <idealise>

System describers <observe and envisage>   Empirical systems


An idealist sees an "Architecture Description" as being a large, compound concept abstracted from a System of Interest.

Or to be strictly accurate, it is an intensional definition of each member of the set of operational systems that conform to the Architecture Description.

An idealist ontology for system architecture

Architecture descriptions

<create and use>                     <idealise>

System architects <observe and envisage> Operational systems


The idealist sees an Architecture Description as a containing concepts or properties abstracted from a System of Interest.

The whole document (100 or more pages?) may be seen as a large and compound concept – the concept of the system.

System describers as idealists

John Zachman - often referred to as “the father of enterprise architecture” – appears to take an idealist position.

“The Zachman Framework is a schema - classifications that have been in use for literally thousands of years.

The first is the fundamentals of communication found in the primitive interrogatives: What, How, When, Who, Where, and Why.

It is the integration of answers to these questions that enables the comprehensive, composite description of complex ideas.

The second is derived from reification, the transformation of an abstract idea into an instantiation that was initially postulated by ancient Greek philosophers” John Zachman’s web site 2012


Those of us who are employed to model activity systems must be idealists.

We construct models of things that we observe or envisage as working in an operational system, and occurring in the surrounding environment.

These types and their properties must be well defined if the systems are to be testable and to work as predicted.


We expect the concept and property types in system descriptions to be embodied in testable systems

We hope the descriptive models will be accurate enough to monitor and direct the realities we observe.

System testing assures that a human and/or computer activity system can successfully use defined properties to monitor and direct real-world entities and events.


Note: to model entities and events in its environment, a software system must record concepts of them - independent of any mind.

However, if actors were destroyed, it wouldn’t be long before software systems stopped running.

Conclusions and remarks

We - users of system description and modelling methods - can be said to be idealists.

We construct models of elements we observe or envisage as working in an operational system.

We define types of entities or events that we observe or envisage as occurring in the environment of the operational system.

The types are concepts; they have been conceived by actors, and exist in mental and documented models.

But if all actors and their products (including computers) were destroyed, then all concepts (including numbers and other mathematical types) would disappear.


With no system description (mental or documented), there is no system.

There can be any number of copies of a system description.

If all copies (mental and documented) of a system description are destroyed, then the system no longer exists.

We are left with things, and stuff happening, that cannot be called a system.


Of course, copies of a model or description may be imperfect, there is fuzziness in the logic here.

For discussion of types and instances, strict and loose types, see other papers.



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