Not getting the Concept

This morning I wake up to a new post from Barry Smith at HL7-Watch entitled “HL7 attempts to get things clear about its own use of the word ‘concept’“, in which he criticises HL7 for it’s definition of Concept as found in the V3 Core Principles.

There’s a lot to criticise in the definition of concept – it’s a tough thing to define. But Barry’s criticisms are not well informed. In fact, they look like he didn’t want to engage, but only to lampoon.I’m not going to make a point by point refutation, but I will note the following things:

  • The point of the terminology work is to impose standards on the way people think. As a goal/method, this has obvious problems, but that’s exactly what a grammar does
  • When you provide 3 aspects to a definition for something, that would be because they are all different, and all need to be true
  • The difference between “real” and “abstract” is a false dichotomy in language, which is all symbolic
  • It is hard to differentiate between use and mention – Barry demonstrates that several times in his own comments

But the Core Principles document (which I sometimes edit, though not this section) here has a tough gig: it’s mission is to describe what we already do, which in this context, is use defined terms. It’s actually a ubiquitious practice in all IT – when a programmer knocks up an enumeration, they’re doing it too. It’s a smooth continuum up to the nightmare of working with post-coordinated Snomed-CT.

If Barry really wanted to help people out, he would offer a better way to describe of what people are already doing. But no….



  1. Keith W. Boone says:

    Why bother getting riled by HL7 Watch?

    • Grahame Grieve says:

      I’m not riled. But people often refer to posts there as if they are actually meaningful, so I felt some response was necessary

  2. Thomas Beale says:

    I had a look at the original text and Barry’s critique. I have to say, the original text is … not useful. The authors seem to indulge in a favourite the HL7 past-time of imagining all that is possible, rather than defining just what it is that HL7’s models and formalisms do. Talking about what ‘might be done’ in ‘other code systems’ etc doesn’t mean anything. I agree that Barry’s inline critique may not be that useful either, but I would suggest the authors look at the paper he references at In particular, the distinction between 3 levels of entities (real things, thoughts about real things, concretised thoughts on media) could be used to make the language much simpler and clearer. The rest of the paper is well worth reading.

    The key thing to understand about ontology is that it is a description of some part of reality, not a self-standing model. This means that it consists of ‘categories’ (aka, classes, types). Calling a category a ‘concept’ as SNOMED CT does just confuses things. The best definition of ‘concept’ is probably just ‘idea’. We are interested in categories in terminology, not ideas. Categories are what individuals (aka instances) belong to, which what subsume sub-categories. This is really all that is needed to talk about ontologies in a clear way. Terminologies and vocabularies – inasfar as they are ontological (i.e. include some taxonomic structure) can then be discussed in the same way.

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