Concepts not nodes

In a recent discussion, Stephen Downes identifies some vagueness in George Siemens’ criticism of his work. Siemens spoke very generally about knowledge and “knowledge elements”, and Downes asks what he means by the term.

I think we often tend to become too vague when we are trying to find very general insights about “the nature of XY”. We ask “What is XY?”, we assume that XY can be defined by a generally valid description, and sometimes neglect that the word XY has several senses.

The word “knowledge”, for instance, has at least two senses, roughly:

  • the knowledge that is forming in some individual(s), or
  • the stock of knowledge of society that is thought of being stored in libraries, encyclopaedias etc.,

When we consider the relationships, or connections, between XY and other nodes in the network, they normally involve only one particular sense of XY. A concept is determined by the various connections, contrasts, and similarities to other nodes.

(Siemens’ issue of objectivity vs. subjectivity has to do with the above sense b. However, from the angle of the data – information – knowledge context, it is only the sense a. that matters, since in this context, b. is merely data and information, or facts.)

So, a concept is not a whole node in the network. It is probably best compared to a port of an internet network node. When my browser at node connects to the web site, it is only interested in this node’s http port 80, not in, say, smtp port 25. At the port, that is where a connection starts or ends (or the “glue” point in the common lines and boxes diagrams).

Concepts involving ports, not nodes – this is how I would probably answer Downes’ question about Siemens’ elements, “What does he mean by ‘elements’? Concepts? Nodes in the network? Entities?”

(The ports model could even be extended to provide for definitions and what-is questions: The connection ending at a “definition” type port would then simply be part of a special, edge case network, namely a hierarchical tree where the root were some authority for truth, certainty, or classification, if such an authority was desired, and you could also have multiples of these tree views, if a plurality was preferred.)

Sorry that I was also too vague. I hope it is tolerable in a learning diary / blog to note immature, emerging thoughts. And of course, I am not philosophically trained and have lots of problems with the language.

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3 Responses to Concepts not nodes

  1. I certainly think that a blog is a great place to be vague and uncertain.

    Without speaking for George…

    Here’s the thing. We have the tendency to want to equate things in our semantic discourse (what is ‘knowledge’, what is ‘truth’) with things in our physical discourse(what is a ‘node’, what is a ‘socket’).

    Our semantic discourse is discourse about things like words and sentences. Sentences are ‘true’. Sentences express ‘knowledge’. This leads us to what is called the ‘physical symbol system’ hypothesis, the idea that the sentences in our brain match up (more or less) one-to-one with physical structures in the brain.

    An important part of connectivism (or connectionism, which asserts much the same thing here) is that the physical structures in the brain are sub-symbolic. That is to say, no individual physical component – like, say, a socket – corresponds with a semantical component – like, say, a concept.

    So what would a concept be? Without being specific, what I would say at this point is that a concept is a substantially large (and indeperminate) combination of physical elements. And not some specific set of physical elements, but something that is different in its make-up for each individual person.

    That this is the case makes it extremely difficult to talk about things like truth and knowledge. What are their properties, what sort of things to they effect, do they cause? With no specific physical configuration, such statements become almost impossible to express, let alone defend and show to be true.

    If I had to say what a concept is (and I make the attempt from time to time) what I say is that it is a set of connections between entities in a network. Not some specific set of connections, because various sets of connections (in various people) can all be instances of the same concept.

    This enormously complicates what we could possibly mean when we say ‘a statement is true’ or ‘a concept is representative’. Which is why, in my mind, my criticism of vagueness is not merely being pedantic, but rather, expressing an important part of the theory.


  2. x28 says:

    Thanks very much for your wonderful aid to orientation. In my nebulous idea about the set of connected “ports” and the set of “connections”, both are very similar. But unfortunaly I described the ports like “sockets” (thanks for this word) which contrast with the plugs and wires.


  3. Roy says:

    Hi Matthias, interesting discussion. I must say I like the way you use port (as I said before).

    Just as ports can provide an opening, and a route to a range of things and interactions, so too concepts can be seen as either ‘enclosures’ or as ‘enablers’.

    For my part knowledge is best dealt with as a part of ‘practical epistemology’ – a symbolic tool, or metaphor, that is more or less useful, in particular contexts (and if you’re very lucky, across many contexts). I find ‘truth’ mysterious, and generally unhelpful, unless you have a belief in absolutes (which I am afraid I dont understand).


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