A professor of mine recently made the following remark about one of my writings: “Most concerning in my judgment is your facile use of aggregate terms to denote particular lines of meaning, as illustrated by your references to neoclassical, Austrian, behavioral, and other aggregations of groups of economists.”
The professor was entirely correct. In the short, 3-page essay, I had not bothered to specify what I meant by those aggregate terms. This article discusses the pros and cons of using aggregate terms.
- Aggregate terms can be used to concisely refer to a broad literature, set of individuals, and set of ideas. They are space savers.
- Many particular ideas relate to an aggregate term or school of thought. So the probability of a reader having encountered an aggregated term is larger than the probability of the reader having encountered the particulars of a single line of thought. Aggregate terms are recognition devices.
- People like to label themselves. People like to belong to big, powerful groups. People’s labels are often aggregated terms of identity which are then connected to aggregate terms of abstract ideas for reasons, with or without intention, of recognition and, with bi-directional causality, social power. For example, Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative, right? The use of aggregate terms is therefore a social strategy to garner widespread recognition, adoption, application, and so on.
- Aggregated terms are often associated with a large bundle of technical implementations. As a result, no technical implementation is really specified. As a further result, the listener need not understand any particular technical implementation in order to appreciate the general principles communicated.
- Aggregate terms can contain internal contradictions. These contradictions must be left out of the net aggregation, resulting in a net loss to meaning. For example, apples may be red or green. So, clearly, the term apple cannot refer in particular to red or green apples. As a result, the idea that red and green apples are the particular kinds of apples is lost when I aggregate to the term apple.
- Sometimes the meaning lost is so great that no useful conclusions or computational models can be built on top of the aggregation.
- Often, people have fragmented and disjointed understandings of the same aggregated terms. Two people may think “liberal” or “conservative” mean rather different things. So when we are trying to communicate with precision, instead of broad strokes, aggregated terms serve often to harm our objective rather than facilitate it.
- Aggregated terms are often associated with a large bundle of technical implementations. As a result, no technical implementation is really specified. As a further result, a technical listener seeking to understand a particular applied plan will be left empty handed by the employment on strictly aggregated grounds.
In conclusion, it seems to me that aggregated terms are excellent for concise review of broad plans, discussions with non-technical persons, and the fostering of social support. Particular terms gain a strong advantage when it comes to logical consistency, technical discussions, and real-world cases of application with particularly detailed implementation plans.