Metaphysics of Software Development

Some insights on the software development craft, from a philosophical viewpoint.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


The four discourses - part I

One of the most important and well-known theories published by Olavo de Carvalho is that of the Four Discourses [book excerpt in Portuguese]. The theory states that in the works of Aristotle there is a core idea: that every human discourse may be classified as belonging to one the following four categories: poetical, rhetorical, dialectical or analytical (logical). Each of these is associated with a level of credibility that is expected from the audience.

Roughly speaking, the poetical discourse is targeted at the level of possibilities: people watching a play know that everything being presented at the stage is not true (they are "pretending", so to say). But nonetheless they realize that all those events could be true. The spectators can even feel the pain and enjoy the good fortunes experienced by the characters. This is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "suspension of disbelief".

The rhetorical discourse aims at creating a strong belief in the audience, in order to persuade them to take some decision. The rhetorical discourse is that of lawyers at courts and politicians in election campaigns, for example. The level of credibility intended here is similitude. It suffices to seem to be true, even though there is no certainty if what is being said is actually true.

The dialectical discourse is an attempt to reach a level of high probability. Beliefs and theories are tested and confronted with each other, so as to reduce the margin of error to a minimum acceptable threshold. This is the method employed by science and philosophy. As an investigation progresses (a process that could last for centuries), scientists come up with theories that are most likely to be true.

The last discourse — analytical — addresses absolute certainty. A mathematical proof is the canonical example of the analytical discourse; a (possibly long) chain of reasoning that begins with the first principles (axioms, definitions) and leads to conclusions that are necessarily true. Not the slightest error or doubt is accepted.

In the next post, I will be talking about the relationship between these levels of discourse and the artifacts produced in a software development project.

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can't wait for the next! :)

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