Implications for philosophy

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of more than 300 papers at Last updated 22/02/2021 22:41


This article is a supplement to this description theory.

It discusses the implications of that theory for philosophy.


Descriptions and described things in philosophy. 1

The “problem of universals”. 1

A new tractacus logico philosophicus. 5

Conclusions and remarks. 9

Appendix: A table of philosophical dichotomies. 9


Descriptions and described things in philosophy

Philosophy has moved over centuries from a position in which descriptions perfectly capture the real nature of things, to positions in which descriptions are, at best, approximations to things. Some propose descriptions are convenient fictions to organise sense data. Others propose all descriptions are untethered from external reality, and equally justified. To decide where you sit in this mess leads you into the endless morass of philosophical debate.


This book may be read as endorsing three philosophical positions. Instrumentalists say models are instruments of prediction. Pragmatists say models are concepts or artifacts used in producing scientific knowledge. Constructive empiricists say models are symbolic representations of empirical phenomena.


Constructive empiricism

Symbolic representations

<create and use>          <represent>

Describers    <observe & envisage>    Phenomena


Some classify these three positions as “anti-realist”, meaning they deny that models give a true description of reality. Here, there is no doubt that a) reality does exist b) a description can be true empirically (enough to be useful), or true logically (a consequence that follows from some axiomatic assertion) and c) we can share descriptions and so share some knowledge of reality. To question any of those seems futile sophistry.

The “problem of universals”

“My life shews that I know or am certain that there is a chair over there, or a door, and so on – I tell a friend e.g. "Take that chair over there", "Shut the door", etc.” Wittgenstein


We show in our thought, talk and actions that we believe the physical world exists. Modern philosophers do not deny the existence of chairs, planets, or light waves. The question is not: “Did the things we describe as planets or light waves exist before mankind? Rather, the question is “Did the types “planet”, “orbit” and “light wave” exist before mankind?


Plato believed types exist in an eternal and ethereal sense, not only in descriptions we construct. Whether you agree with Plato or not makes no practical difference to how you live your life. It is however a problem for philosophers, who speak of particulars and universals. Universals are generic descriptive types like “tall”, “circular” and “dangerous”. Particulars are the specific qualities of discrete things we observe and envisage.




<create and use>       <typify>

Describers  <observe and envisage> Particulars


The “problem of universals” is the question of whether universals exist outside of human thought and record (or else, what it means to “exist”).

Traditional answers to the problem

Three possible philosophical positions are:

·       Platonic realism: a descriptive type exists in a metaphysical form independently of life and record of it.

·       Aristotelian realism: a descriptive type exists only when things of that type exist.

·       Idealism: a descriptive type is a property constructed in the mind, so exists only in descriptions of things.


Since Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have developed a many diverse and overlapping positions. Some positions seem to turn the classical idealism/realism distinction on its head. Today, I believe idealism may be contrasted with realism as follows.


Realism is the view that things exists in reality, independently of our perception of them and conceptual schema.

Empiricism is the view that our knowledge of entities in the world comes from our perception of them.

Most scientists would probably describe themselves as realists and empiricists.

They test how well some entity behaves according to what a theory predicts.

Just as systems theorist tests that some entity behaves as a system predicts


Idealism is the view that reality as we know it is a construction of the mind.

Solipsism is the view that we cannot logically prove that things (we think we know) exist in reality.

Also, that the past is an illusion we construct to account for our present state of mind.

These views may lead people to conclude all ideas about the world are equally valid.

And since abstract systems are constructs of the mind, all systems are equally valid.

This is a kind of "relativism" that devalues science and system theory.


It seems to me there is something fundamentally misleading about the contrast drawn above. On the one hand, pragmatic system theorists tend to see themselves as realists and empiricists; and some promote what is called scientific realism. Yet at the same time, the Darwinian psycho-biological philosophy in this chapter is compatible with idealism and solipsism.


Epistemological idealists take the view that reality can only be known through ideas, that only psychological experience can be apprehended by the mind. And to instrumentalists, the existence of universals is a question for biology, psychology and epistemology. Their view is that descriptions are encoded in real-world forms, whether in our biochemistry or records and machines we make.


Aside: Ian Glossop tells me the view above is compatible with many philosophers. Including Searle, Dennett, Dretske, Fodor, Kim, Davidson, McGinn, Putnam, Popper and Russell. But I don't promise they would endorse all this chapter, which is mostly what I read as said or implied by Darwin and Ashby.

Our answer to the problem


Did the “chair” type exist before life? Different people may have different ideas of what they judge to qualify as a “chair”. But whatever they mean by the type, surely it is an invention of humankind?


Did colors exist before life? It turns out that animal brains manufacture the sensation of color, from a mixture of the light they perceive and their experience. We see the same light waves as different colors, depending on the situation. For more on color perception, read


Did the “elephant” type exist before their kind came to be encoded in a genotype? Surely not. And when we define the elephant type as “a large, grey, herbivore, mammal with a trunk” we encode that type in a different way. We might define the elephant type in other words, selecting different properties as being the essential ones. And eventually elephants may evolve to depart from its genotype and some of the ways we define it.


Did the “planet” type exist before life? The truth of the statement “Pluto is a planet” depends on how that type is defined. And what is true has changed, as astronomers have defined and redefined the planet type.


Did the “ellipse” type exist before life? The orbits of real planets are pulled by gravity in many directions, so are never perfect ellipses. The type we call “ellipse” exists in mathematic models we construct. Does it, as Plato believed, exist also in an ideal or ethereal sense?


Maturana said that knowledge is a biological phenomenon. In other words, descriptive types are tools constructed by life forms. A constructivist says there can be no construct without a constructor, no concept without a conceiver, no description without a describer, no type without a typifier.


There are things in reality that we describe (typify) as “light ray”, “electron” and “electric charge”. But we can never discuss reality as it is; and even to imagine we could makes no sense. We can only discuss models we construct of reality. Every description (type) we construct (in our minds, speech, writing or mathematics) is only a model.


E.g. Before life, light had no name or description; today it has a name and is described (typified) as “waves” or “particles”.  But in reality, light is neither waves nor particles; those are only models constructed by scientists who find them useful – meaning the models help people discuss, explain and predict what light does.


E.g. Before a software system is conceived, it has no name or architecture (description); afterwards, it has both. But in operation, it is not an architecture (description), which is only a model constructed by architects who find it useful - meaning the model helps people discuss, explain and predict what the system does.


At first glance, some named philosophical positions some seem to fit this constructivist view. But under those headings, people say things that make no sense to a constructivist, and seem nothing more than a confused use of language.


To say “a weight describes the weight of a thing” is tautologous. To say “a type describes the type of a thing” is tautologous. To say “an architecture description describes the architecture of a system” is tautologous. It is really to say either “a description describes the description of a thing”, or else “a description describes the thing of a thing”.


Surely any species with human-level intelligence will sooner or later conceive of zero (the number of eggs in an empty nest) and pi (a logical consequence of drawing a circle) and curved spacetime too. But what does it mean to say these concepts exist? Did they exist before an intelligence arrived at them? There were empty nests before people conceived of zero to describe the quantity of eggs in one, but no “zero”. There were roughly circular things, but no perfect circle, which is a construct of mathematics. And the notion of spacetime being curved is merely a way of visualizing otherwise inexplicable mathematics.


There is no need to posit a type exists outside of any description encoded in a memory or message of some kind. The constructivist position is that before life (before observation, knowledge or description of things) there were:


·       many similarly-shaped groups of stars, but no concept of a spiral galaxy.

·       many more or less circular things, but no concept of a circle or pi.

·       planets in roughly elliptical orbits, but no “ellipse” type

·       many things that resemble each other, but nobody to count them or concept of number.


To a constructivist, there is no ethereal property, concept or type. The idea is useless, redundant, and better cut out using Occam’s razor. When all descriptions of an “atom”, “mountain”, “galaxy” and “ellipse” are destroyed, then, while the things we describe thus may continue exist, the types we use to describe them will disappear from the cosmos.


For every philosophical position there are variants that undermine each other.


Social constructivism? This states that we acquire knowledge through social interaction. Yet animals held and acquired knowledge of their environment eons before they evolved to communicate more than mating intentions to each other. So, social constructivism can be no more than a partial explanation of knowledge acquisition.


Radical constructivism? This states that our knowledge is individual, and cannot be shared. Yet clearly, a message receiver can confirm a gale warning message when hit by the gale. So, we reject that variety of radical constructivism that says we cannot share knowledge - along with any kind of relativism or perspectivism that says all constructed views of the world are equally valid.

Dissolving the problem

This philosophy of systems takes the view that description and knowledge are tools that evolved alongside life.

You could say it is pragmatic, instrumentalist, materialist, empirical and epistemological.


Is the philosophy a kind of realism or idealism? You could say both. The problem of universals is not so much resolved as dissolved by the philosophy here. As Maturana said, knowledge is a biological phenomenon. It isn’t that concepts exist out there, sooner or later encoded by people in mind or in writing. It is that people (and now their computing devices) abstract concepts (like “round” and “yellow”) from what exists and happens. These descriptions are locatable in space and time, in mental and documented models. They exist in minds, in writing, in computers, wherever.


E.g. Consider the concept of an ellipse. In truth, planets don’t orbit in ellipses, they only approximate to that model of their behavior. The concept is an idealised description, held in countless mental and documented models. For sure, planets moved (approximately) in ellipses before the concept of an ellipse was thought of. And they will probably still being doing it after all descriptions of an ellipse have been erased from the universe. But by that time, the concept of an ellipse will no longer exist in any physical or material form.


Many believe or propose that every concept exists for eternity in a metaphysical sense. But this has no practical implication or use. Using Occam’s razor, we can cut it out of our philosophy with no loss. And most scientists are favour of discarding what is redundant.

A new tractacus logico philosophicus

This section of the chapter is an attempt to distill some presumptions and consequences of what is discussed above.


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) influenced the “Vienna circle” of logical empiricists (aka logical positivists). He argued philosophical disagreements and confusions can be resolved by analysing the use and abuse of language. In his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” he set out seven propositions. The propositions are famous for being a tough read, and have been interpreted in various ways. That doesn’t matter here, because Wittgenstein later realised his tractatus was self-contradictory.


In “Philosophical Investigations”, published after his death, Wittgenstein developed an entirely different linguistics. He turned from seeing language as precise to seeing language as fluid. He dropped the metaphor of language “picturing” reality and replaced it with language as a tool.


Some classical and linguistic philosophes seem to have been overtaken by biological and software sciences.  This philosophy sees language as only one tool for describing things. Its starts from this general epistemology in which descriptions can take any form, including paintings for example




<create and use>   <represent>

Describers <observe and envisage> Phenomena


This philosophy looks at description from the viewpoint of Darwinian biology. It promotes the modern view of "knowledge" and "truth" as instruments that evolved alongside life. It promotes a type theory that allows for fuzziness and transience in the conformance of things to types. It compares and contrasts this type theory with the more rigid set theory you may be familiar with. And questions what it means for mathematical concepts to “exist”.


There follows an informal “tractacus” about description and reality. It written from the perspective of a psycho-biologist rather than a linguist or mathematician.


·       Space and time exist as physical phenomena.

·       Other physical phenomena - things and their effects - exist out there in space and time.

·       Things that exist include you, me and other people we can communicate with.

·       We can perceive things, remember things and recall things.

·       We can describe things in memories and in messages.

·       By exchanging messages, we can communicate and share knowledge of things that exist


We don’t “know” space and time in some ideal or perfect sense. We do have concepts (three dimensions of distance, and units of time) for describing them. There is no need to presume those concepts existed before life.


-1- Describers are intelligent actors (natural or artificial) that can encode and decode descriptive models of entities.


-2- An entity is anything that can be observed or envisaged in time and space.

Phenomena include descriptions and describers.


-3- A description is created by a describer to represent an entity that is observed or envisaged.

Descriptions can be formed in mental and digital models, speech and writings, paintings and physical models.


-4- A description has a degree of truth to its creator and any user.

True means true enough, and false means not true enough.

The judgement of “enough” may be made differently by different observers on different occasions.


-5- A description is fanciful to an actor who believes it represents an imagined entity (e.g. a unicorn).

However, on discovering an entity that matches the description (e.g. on the discovery of unicorns) the description becomes true.


-6- Types are descriptions, and descriptions are types.

A descriptive may type be singular (e.g. tasty) or a compound (e.g. hot, tasty liquid).

However large and complex a description is, it can be seen as a compound type.


-7- Describers formalise resemblances between entities into generic types.

To this, they codify types using the symbols/words of a symbolic/verbal vocabulary.

In natural language, the meanings of words are fluid and fuzzy.

In a controlled vocabulary the meanings of words are fixed.


-8- A controlled vocabulary must start from some (ideally very few) basic axiomatic types.

Since words are defined in a circular fashion using other words.

E.g. A “rock” might be described/typified as “a perceptibly discrete entity, a dry and solid body of mineral material”.


-9- Communication is a process that can creates and conveys a description from a creator to a user.

It succeeds when the meaning/information in descriptive types are near enough the same when encoded and decoded.


-10- Communication requires speakers and listeners to share the same vocabulary for encoding and decoding a description.

A vocabulary contains a set of symbols used in the process of creating and using descriptions.


-11- To communicate verbally, human speakers and listeners must share a great deal.

They must largely share same vocabulary, grammar, psychology, biology, and experience of the world.


-12- Descriptions can be verified by empirical, logical and social means.


The philosopher Neitzche argued no purely objective science can exist.

Because no concept or thought can exist outside the influences of an individual perception. 

In his “transcendental perspectivism”, each truth is the product of the perceiver.

However, he said, if two perceivers share a truth, then that truth transcends each individual perceiver.


Some present Neitzche’s view as “shared perception is reality”.

What matters is more is testing that a description corresponds to some physical phenomena.

If a description passes empirical and logical tests, we may call it true - objective - science.

Sharing is nice, but usually the weakest of the three verification tools: empirical, logical and social.

Answering a reader’s questions

Q1) Does the meaning or concept of “ellipse” exist in a description of it?

A1) No, it exists only in a process that creates or uses the description.


Q2) Is a description of the concept “ellipse” the same as the concept?

A2) It corresponds to the concept only in those moments when actors decode the intended meaning from the description.


Q3) If I write down the mathematical formula for ellipses, is that a description of an ellipse?

A3) Yes, but to find your intended meaning in that description, an actor must decode it using the code you used to write it.


Q4) If we send that formula into space, it is still a description that somehow ‘equals’ the concept of ellipse?

A4) The description is less than the concept, since that requires also an intelligent actor able to decode the description.


Q5) If I give the formula to you, will you have approximately the same understanding of the concept ‘ellipse’?

A5) Only if and when I decode the formula using the code you used to write it.


Q6) If an alien receives the formula, can they form a mental image equivalent to our understanding of ellipses?

A6) Only if and when the alien decodes the formula using the code you used to write it.


Q7) If humans are extinct but aliens haven’t evolved yet, will the formula still describe the concept of ‘ellipse’?

A7) The formula can represent an ellipse, but only to an actor able to decode it.


Q8) So, is the concept encode in the description independent from any ‘mind’ or ‘brain’ that interprets it?

A8) No, the concept existed also in the mind of the describer – you, when you encoded it in the formula.


Q9) According to quantum physics, elementary particles ‘exist’ as a probabilistic wave form

There is no sharp boundary between existence and non-existence.

In what appears to be vacuum, there is a finite, non-zero, probability that a particle will pop into existence.


Surely that implies there is a non-zero (admittedly tiny) probability that several such particles form into the shape of an ellipse.

Would that shape itself be a description of an ellipse, i.e. embody the ellipse concept, in your philosophy?


A9) That shape will be an ellipse (an instance),

But will only describe an ellipse to an actor who interprets that shape an instance of the generic type.


Q10) What is the difference between a deliberate description of ellipses, and a randomly occurring ellipse shape?

A10) The first is an intentionally encoded concept - a type, which an actor might interpret as typifying all ellipses.

The second is an instance of that type, which might or might not be interpreted by an actor as exemplifying the general type.


Intelligent actors who communicate about “ellipses” must remember the concept, however vaguely, in some mysterious biological form.

But the meaning of that concept to the actors exists only in the processes of creating/encoding and decoding/using that memory.

An actor might arrange a set of golf balls in an ellipse shape with the intent to describe what all ellipses look like.

The intent is in the thought processes of the actor who forms the shape.

An actor who already knows the ellipse type, or is told the shape embodies the ellipse type, may perceive the shape as exemplifying that type.

The interpretation is in the thought processes of the actor who observes the shape.

Conclusions and remarks

This article is a supplement to this description theory.

It discusses the implications of that theory for philosophy.


Finally, people ask about my personal view of other philosophers.

At the risk of upsetting people, here are some glib thoughts.

·       Plato, Aristotle and Descarte – superseded.

·       Metaphysical and theological philosophy (e.g. Kierkgaard) - on a different planet.

·       Political philosophy (e.g. Engels and de Beauvoir) - tendentious.

·       Linguistic-based philosophy – too human-centric.

·       Heraclitus and Kant – close to my philosophy

·       Charles Darwin and W Ross Ashby - my touchstones. 

Appendix: A table of philosophical dichotomies

The table below is an attempt to help me and readers compare and contrast the terms and concepts therein.


The first column contains my view, distilled from the history of life on earth in my article on The science of system theory

The second and third columns were edited from the three sources below.

·       The philosophy book. ISBN 978-1-4053-5329-8


· (this may be a dead link)


Since posting the table in 2014 I’ve had many reservations about it.

Some terms are defined differently in other sources and/or have multiple meanings.

Some terms presented as “different” are arguably not opposites.

Some definitions depend on other terms, such as “existence”, whose meaning is debatable.

And some philosophical positions seem like meaningless babble to me.

In so far as philosophy is about language, knowledge and truth, it seems to have been overtaken by biological and software sciences.


My view

Some philosophical positions

Some different philosophical positions

On “existence

Matter and energy exist, but are mysterious, beyond our full comprehension.

All our perceptions, descriptions and mental models of matter and energy also exist in the form of matter and energy.

Idealism: existence is mental or spiritual.

Foerster’s Constructivist Postulate:

"Experience is the cause, the world is the consequence."

Materialism: existence is material.

Foerster’s Realist Postulate:

"The World is the cause, experience is the consequence."

The modern view is “cognitive embodiment”.

The mind is part of the body rather than separable from it.

Cognitive embodiment: mental states and activities are bodily states; the mind is inseparable from the body.

Cartesian Dualism: views the mind as standing apart from the body; the mind controls, interacts with and reacts to the body. (After Descartes)

Wisdom is the ability to respond effectively to knowledge in new situations

Knowledge is information that is accurate or true enough to be useful.

Knowledge represents what exists – to help us manipulate it or predict its behavior.



Information is meaning created or found in a structure or behavior by an actor.

Communication requires speakers and hearers to share a language for encoding and decoding the structure of behavior.

The Hermeneutic Principle: "The hearer, not the speaker determines the meaning of an utterance."

The communication principle: Speakers create meanings in utterances; hearers find meanings in utterances; communication succeeds when the created and found meanings are the same.

Data is a structure of matter/energy in which information has been created or found.

Facts are encoded in the data structure by a sender and can be decoded from it by a receiver.



Knowledge acquisition

The members of a social species necessarily see the world similarly.

They evolved the ability to perceive and communicate about the world.

They do this well enough to survive.

We humans learn from a mix of

1.      empirical experience of real-world entities and events

2.      logical deduction

3.      social interaction


Each kind of learning has helped our species to understand reality and manipulate it.

Perspectivism, radical constructivism and post-modernism are dangerous ideas that people use to undermine science and its importance to society.

Empiricism: knowledge is acquired from information obtained from the senses rather from reasoning.

Interpretative: we understand things by perceiving them.

Functionalism: we build mental structures through maturation and interaction with the world.

Cognitive constructivism: knowledge is acquired by creating mental structures in response to experiences. (Piaget)


Social constructivism: knowledge is acquired from social interaction and language usage, and is a shared rather than individual (Prawatt & Floden).

Epistemological Postulate: "He who organises his experience organises the world". The world is unique to each individual.

Radical constructivism: knowledge is acquired from experience, but is not, in any discernible way, an accurate representation of the external world or reality (von Glasersfeld).

Perspectivism: There is no objective truth; knowledge is conditional upon personal perspectives or interests. (Nietzsche)

Rationalism: knowledge is acquired by reason and logical analysis.

Formalism: we understand things by manipulating symbols. E.g. Mathematics does not require the existence of objects or properties.

On language

Whether there is some truth in structuralism or not, the human mind is plastic and language is infinitely flexible.

To describe a testable system, an artificial domain-specific language is needed.

Structuralism: we are born with structures that determine how perceptions (phenomena) of concrete things (noumena or a priori objects) are brought together and organised in the mind.

Structuralism in linguistics: language consists of rules that enable speakers to produce an infinite number of sentences. (Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Chomsky).

On determinism

At a micro level, the world as we experience it is deterministic.

We can predict the next discernible event - at least in theory.


At a macro level, the world we experience appears indeterminate.

The long-term outcomes of events are unpredictable (aka chaotic).


At a psychological and sociological level we have no reasonable or acceptable option but to treat people of sound mind as having free will.

Deterministic: every state and event is the consequence of antecedent states and events. This implies that prediction is possible in theory.

Deterministic automaton: a machine in state Si,

when it receives input Ij,

will go into state Sk and

produce output Ol

(for a finite number of states, inputs and outputs).

Self-determination: choices arise from reasons or desires (regardless of how the processes of choice work).

Indeterministic: a state or event is not wholly the consequence of antecedent states or events. This seems to imply some kind of randomness in state transitions.

Random: haphazard, not-predetermined. In maths it is a measure of how unpredictable a future state or event is.

Chaotic: disorderly. In maths it means behavior in which small differences in an initial state or event yield widely diverging outcomes (even though the system is deterministic, with no random elements). This makes long-term prediction impossible.

Both holist and reductionist views of a system are important and helpful different times. Enterprise architecture is deprecated by some “systems thinkers” as being reductionist.

The implication is that other kinds of “systems thinking” are better for being purely holistic. In practice, both enterprise architects and systems thinkers take both views of systems.

Holism: treats a system’s parts as inseparable. The properties of the whole system are not the properties of any part. These “emergent properties” emerge only from the interaction between parts

Reductionism: explains the properties of one thing by the properties of another (lower level) thing. Or else, ignores the higher thing in favour of discussing the lower thing(s).



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