Wide Awake Developers

Wittgenstein and Design

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What does a philosopher born in the 19th Century have to say about software design? More than you might think, particularly his ideas about family resemblance.

Wittgenstein used the subject of “games” to illustrate an idea. We’ll start with a counter-example. Suppose we operate with the then-prevailing notion that words are defined like sets in axiomatic set theory. Then there is a decision procedure that will let us decide whether something is a member of the set “games” or not. Such a decision procedure must include everything that is a game and exclude everything which is not a game. Can we define such a decision procedure?

Does a game require competition? Some do. Not all.

Does a game have a score? Or an objective? Not all.

Does a game involve more than one person? Not necessarily.

Is a game a frivolous expenditure of energy? Some are. Others have deep moral and philosophical lessons.

How is a game of football like a game of solitaire?

It’s easy to see that mancala and go have something in common… little rounded stones. But what do they have in common with Minecraft? Stones?

Wittgenstein said that this is not an issue for set theory. Instead, he talked about family resemblances. As described in Wikipedia, “things which could be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is common to all.”

For games, this means there is no single feature that makes something a game. Instead, there are a set of overlapping similarities that make things more gamelike or less gamelike. We can even think about things that share more of the features as being more like each other. So go and mancala share features like: two players, stones on a board, alternating turns, one winner, ancient, cerebral, positional. This makes them pretty similar. A professionally played team sport with a ball on a field shares few qualities with go. (Although “people excited about the outcome” and “positional” might be common.) So the feature-distance between go and football is large, yet they are both still games.

I think this relates to the tasks of software design and architecture. We have a strong tendency to go looking for nouns in our designs. Once we find a noun in a domain, we want to make a software artifact that captures all members of the set induced by that noun. But that only works if we stick with axiomatic set theory. Set theory works well for well-defined technical concepts and much less well for things in the human sphere.

One simple example, the humble “name” field. Go read Falsehoods programmers believe about names. How do you feel about that “first name”, “last name” database structure now? After reading that list, how much can you confidently say about instances of a “Name” class? Or a “Name” service?

We have all these debates about “noun-first” or “verb-first”. Back in The Perils of Semantic Coupling, I argued for a behavior-oriented approach rather than a noun-oriented approach. Stop saying “what is this thing?” but rather “what can you do with it?” That leads us toward segregated interfaces.

Now I’d augment that to emphasize those feature descriptions rather than noun-like descriptions. Instead of noun-first or verb-first I’m going to try “adjective-first”.