Why Bother With Concepts?

Or conceptual architectures? This question – and my answer – was prompted by Peter Bakker‘s post Factual Architecture! Basically, my understanding of Peter’s criticism is that he thinks that concepts are too abstract – don’t connect with audiences, and don’t connect with reality. He contrasts this with “factual architectures” – whatever they are. I’ll respond directly to Peter’s post on his site, but here I’d like to defend the notion of conceptual architectures and conceptual analysis in more detail than I have done in my two other posts.

Why do I disagree with Peter? Why do I think that conceptual architectures are valuable? The simple answer is given in the classic Gang of Four song “Why Theory?” – as the song says: “Each day seems like a natural fact/but what we think changes how we act”. That is to say that concepts change what we view as facts, and they change how we act – in this case they change how we view the world, describe the world and architect our solutions.

Part of this critique of un-analysed “facts” is the belief that when we discuss things we are always doing so in the context of an implicit theory, an implicit conceptual framework. The point of conceptual analysis of the sort that I am engaging in is to make that theory and that framework explicit, so it can be critiqued, so that its assumptions can be exposed.

A conceptual architecture gives us a framework for looking at a problem, and describing a solution that is neutral between implementations. Unless we have this, how can we compare different possible implementations of the solution? In particular it allows us to see whether a particular implementation is a complete solution. I have seen many enterprise IT solutions that do not include all of the necessary elements to address the problem because of a lack of basic analysis and description.

A conceptual architecture sits on one end of a continuum from a conceptual architecture through an executable architecture through to an implemented solution. It is not the full answer – not even close. It is just the start of telling the story – but in my mind it is an essential part. The reason that I write posts on conceptual architectures is that I see many examples of technology or deployment architectures. I come across many descriptions of how to connect or deploy vendor products to deliver a certain solution, but rarely do I come across a full description showing why the solution exists, and why it takes the form it does, what functions the solution is performing. These are the items that a conceptual architecture addresses.


11 Responses to “Why Bother With Concepts?”

  1. Hi Doug

    I think there is a critical difference between two interpretations of the term “Conceptual Architecture”. I’d describe your sample conceptual architecture (https://dougnewdick.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/a-sample-conceptual-architecture/) as essentially a component architecture, which happens to be at the “conceptual” level of abstraction, In other words, it provides a conceptual understanding of how the components work together.

    That’s not at all the same as understanding how the concepts themselves work together, which is what I think you need to satisfy the Gang of Four requirement for an architecture-of-concepts, and which would also be implied by your reference to the Wikipedia article on Philosophical Analysis.

    The Wikipedia article mentions critiques of the traditional approach to philosophical analysis by Quine and Wittgenstein. I have used some of their ideas – although with no claim to profundity – in my own approach to conceptual modelling. See for example my 1992 book on Information Modelling.

    To take a concrete example, if we are going to build systems and management practices to anticipate competitor behaviour, we have to have some concept of COMPETITOR. I once worked with a company that thought it knew which its competitors were, and were quite indignant when a competitive threat appeared from an entirely different quarter. Traditional philosophical analysis implies you can fully characterize a concept like COMPETITOR in advance, but Wittgenstein and Quine teach us to be cautious of monothetic, appearently objective conceptual definitions.

    Is this really the way it is? Or a contract in our mutual interest?

    • Hi Richard,

      You caught me out! I was deliberately fudging the distinction between conceptual analysis of the concepts that we use and a conceptual component architecture. In my defence I will say that I believe that part of a good conceptual component architecture is a decent analysis of the concepts involved in your problem (and solution) domain. Take my example – what do we really mean by the term “desktop”? We could mean the physical device, we could mean the device plus OS, we could mean the device and everything we access from it, or we could mean (as many of us do in the industry) all of those things plus management necessary to deliver them as well. When we think about it like this, we can see that there is a connection between conceptual analysis and conceptual architectures. The conceptual architecture should be informed by a good conceptual analysis (both of the key concepts we are decomposing and of the components themselves). Now, I don’t interpret conceptual analysis narrowly as being just analysis in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. My personal metaphysics is closest to some form of mild pragmatism (of a Peircean nature), and thus I would usually look at how we use terms to understand their “meaning”. Some of our concepts do yield well to analysis in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Some yield well to family resemblance type analysis (a la Wittgenstein). But many other terms are better understood by the contexts we use them in, the effects we generate with them and the models that we construct with them. So in that sense I would rather talk of inter-subjectivity than objectivity of a meaning of concepts.
      Thanks for keeping me honest!


      • Doug

        Your post started as a disagreement with Peter Bakker about the relative importance of facts and concepts. The Gang of Four quote is relevant to this question, and we can name-drop (between ourselves) various philosophers who have explored this question much more profoundly than ourselves. But your example of a conceptual architecture seems to have nothing to say to this question, doesn’t really make clear “why the solution exists, and why it takes the form it does”, and therefore doesn’t provide a very convincing argument for bothering with concepts at all. I believe it is both possible and desirable to construct a much stronger, more pragmatic and more widely accessible argument for proper analysis of concepts.

  2. “Theory without practice is useless. Practice without theory is blind.” Emmanuel Kant.
    This quote is the basis statement of the Praxeme EA methodology. Check out the white pages on the following link:
    I would be glad to get your feedback about it.

  3. Doug,

    Thanks for responding to my piece. I agree that I should at least give some example what I mean with a “Factual Architecture” so I’m working on that by using your sketch of the Conceptual Components of a Desktop Architecture (I hope you don’t mind ) at http://peterbakker.wordpress.com/protoypes/factual-desktop-architecture/

    By the way: it was not my intention to criticize the use of concepts in general but I wanted to express my strong feeling that concepts are overused in digital architecture without much empathy for the intended audience (or audiences if you split the audience up into the different kind of “stakeholders”).

    I will try to finish my very simple example first before I will react in more detail 🙂

    • My first version of my more detailed reaction is posted at http://peterbakker.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/conceptual-architecture-factual-data-factual-architecture/

      I will add some links, and maybe update the text a bit, later on the day when I have more time…

      • Thansk Peter for the reply, and fleshing out your initial comments with further posts. I think there are several different things going on in your reaction, which I’d like to unpick.
        1. Conceptual architectures don’t speak well to the audience(s).I think this is an important point. I do think that properly explained conceptual architectures are an important part of communicating with and getting buy in from stakeholders. They are a way of getting at what is essential and abstracting away from what is inessential. That said, they absolutely are not going to work for everyone on their own. Stories and examples of concrete realisations are key to explaining conceptual architectures, and complete architectures. In short, a conceptual architecture is a model – it is not the communication of the architecture.
        2. There are too many conceptual architecures. This just isn’t my experience. I see very few conceptual architectures and far too many detailed implementation descriptions, technology architectures which shower you with inessential detail and confuse what is important with what is large, hard or expensive. It’s great that you tell me that Microsoft SCCM is part of your desktop architecture – but in order to assess it’s completeness and fit-for-purpose I need to understand what you are using Microsoft SCCM for, and what problem you are trying to solve. I can’t do this without soem form of conceptual architecture.

      • Hi Doug,

        My answer to the comment you made on my blog can be read at http://peterbakker.wordpress.com/protoypes/factual-desktop-architecture/#comment-180 and I could have made almost the same comment here 🙂
        Reading your comment here I don’t think we really disagree that much and that we are looking to accomplish more or less the same thing: be able to create legible architectures…

        As I say in my comment at my blog: “Another way to look at factual architecture is to see it as a way of prototyping the conceptual architecture.” So I don’t object to the use of conceptual architectures, only to the overusage (I think we certainly agree on that point because you also say “There are too many conceptual architecures”) and the way they are communicated (without examples/model/prototype how the reality behind the concepts may look like).


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