Rectification of Names

A tenet of Confucianism is that a Sage will engage in the Rectification of Names.

In other words, he’ll call a spade a spade.  He’ll cure the problems of intentional obfuscation, and abolish what George Orwell calls “Newspeak” in his novel, 1984.

My favorite philosopher, Karl Popper, says that getting names right isn’t such a big deal. In my opinion Popper is the most perceptive, aw heck, the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century, but I think he got this wrong.

I think I know where Popper is coming from: if you are debating what makes a human a human, what we mean by “white”, etc., then you are looking in the opposite direction from where we might find interesting things about humans, color, and so on.

More technically, Popper is opposed to Essentialism.

The terms we use when we are doing interesting research are always vague to some degree.  Popper’s view is that you can use whatever term you want as long as you have provisional definitions that are good enough for your work.

But I’m a coder.  I think there is a terrific value in coming up with names that describe what variables represent, what functions do.  If you have a directory called transforms filled with files that represent objects in their final state, with nothing related to mapping from one representation or type to another, nothing that changes, no getting from here to there, I’m going to be more than a little irritated. Ditto if you have a function called compute-difference that returns a sum.

I’m a busy man, with more work to do than time to do it. Why waste my time by lying to me?


One thought on “Rectification of Names

  1. rstinejr says:

    An example of Popper’s anti-Essentialism: “[A]s I often have pointed out, ‘what is’ questions are never fruitful, although they have been much discussed by philosophers. They are connected… with the very influential philosophy that I have called ‘essentialism’, and which I regard as mistaken.” p. 100, “The Self and its Brain”, Springer Verlag, 1977

    I believe that developing UML class diagrams is often crippled by focusing for hours and hours on “what is” questions regarding object taxonomies.

    My blog post is not meant to be an argument in favor of Essentialism, but instead an appeal for clarity where possible.


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