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Information as Concept and Concept as Information in the Light of Epistemology and Methodology

Summary: The paper deals with the definition and classification of the concept of information in terms of epistemology and methodology. It is divided into two parts: theoretical and analytical part. In the theoretical part, the concepts of epistemology, methodology and method are defined and their impact on the approaches in information science is examined. The paper then poses two basic epistemological questions and four approaches are differentiated: realism, scepticism, subjectivism and objectivism. Their relationship to methodology is examined and some examples of these trends in information science are provided. The notion of concept is defined and four basic approaches are identified: extreme realism, moderate realism, conceptualism and nominalism; some examples of these approaches in information science are shown. The paper then deals with the notion of concept, definition and classification and distinguishes three approaches to these scientific instruments: realism, instrumentalism and definition-rejecting approach. The following section deals with the analysis of four texts whose authors (Bates, Losee, Floridi and Goguen) are representative of the above approaches to epistemological and methodological issues. The analysis concludes that information is a transcendental concept that can be defined only verbally, and thus further use of the concept in information science should be questioned.

Keywords: information, concept, definition, classification, epistemology, methodology, information science, conceptual analysis, content analysis, interpretation

PhDr. Jiří Stodola, Ph.D. / Kabinet informačních studií a knihovnictví, Filozofická fakulta, Masarykova univerzita, Arna Nováka 1, 602 00 Brno (Division of Library and Information Studies, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno),

1 Introduction1

The traditional Aristotelian Science considers definition and classification the basic building blocks of every science (see Gredt, 2009, p. 112; Skácel & Skácel, 1945, p. 84). Within the framework of the relevant discourse, science is largely defined by its subject matter – it is the same as are the things it studies (Stodola, 2011a). For this reason, every branch of science starts with a conceptual definition of its subject matter, based on which other concepts are deduced and classified.

The above procedure is still used in formal sciences (Anzenbacher, 1990, p. 26), such as mathematics and logics, which start with establishing a set of axioms (see Tarski, 1969) from which other statements are deduced.

Modern natural sciences have for some time abandoned the above-described methodology and have, due to the influence of empiricism (Bacon, 1990) and positivism (Comte, 1865), focused primarily on data collection and classification. Scientists in the humanities and social sciences have attempted to pursue the same approach, although it was subject to criticism from the very beginning (Dilthey, 1990).

New findings and the related philosophical reflections (Popper, 1997; Kuhn, 1997) have gradually turned natural sciences away from pure positivism. The current opinion held by natural scientists as well as by social and humanities scientists is that, conversely to the view of positivists and logical positivists, scientific knowledge is not cumulative; rather, it has the form of a series of shifts through which existing paradigms are replaced by new ones (Glazier, 2004, p. 288–290). A paradigm is viewed as a conceptual and theoretical framework used as a prism through which the studied subject is approached. Despite being incompatible, the individual paradigms can often be found to coexist within a single subject field (both at the diachronic and the synchronic levels) (Glazier, 2004, p. 292). Knowledge is no longer considered absolute; instead, it is viewed as a relative concept, one that always needs to be viewed in relation to a given paradigm and a theory that has been accepted under this paradigm (Ochrana, 2009, p. 44).

Because every theory consists of a set of related and hierarchically ordered concepts, the new conception of science brings back the need of precise definition and classification.

In information science, a key role is played by the concept of information (Losee, 1997), whose definition and classification have been attempted by numerous scientists influenced by a diversity of theoretical approaches (see Bates, 2010). A further complication is posed by the fact that the concept of information is part of not only information science but also of a range of other subject fields (Capurro a Hjørland, 2003, p. 396). Examples include cybernetics, systems theory, theory of communication, cognitive psychology, cognitive science, genetics and, last but not least, philosophy (Steinerová, 2011, p. 9).

1.1 Structure, Goals and Methods

The present study analyses a selection of definitions of the concept of information generated by information science and the related subject fields, from the point of view of methodology and epistemology. The paper consists of two parts, a theoretical and an analytical one. The theoretical part lays the epistemological and methodological basis for the work.
The theory is then applied on the concepts, definitions and classifications in information science. The analytical part deals with the analysis of selected texts with respect to both their epistemological and methodological background, and to the role of concepts, definitions and classifications in the respective schools of philosophy. The primary goal of the paper is to establish a connection between defining and classifying the concept of information in the field of information science on the one hand, and the key philosophical questions on the nature of concepts on the other. The study aims at the information scientists who are knowledgeable in philosophical questions and the highly abstract topics of the information science.

Methodologically, the study draws on critical realism, which posits that human knowledge is objective (i.e. not actively constructed by the cognizing subject, although the role of the subject is not entirely passive); true (i.e. an accord can be reached between knowledge and reality, with knowledge being defined by this accord; cognition which does not accord with reality is not knowledge but a fallacy) and certain (some cognitions can be said to be certainly true). A necessary condition of the objectivity of knowledge is that there is an objective reality independent of the cognizing subject and that this reality is structured in itself (cognition does not introduce a structure into the reality but derives it from the real world). In order to be able to decide whether a cognition is true we need to have direct access to the real world (otherwise, no accord can be identified) and we need to be able to discriminate between the parts of cognition that have been derived from the real world and the general aspects that have been “added” by our cognising structures. In the present study, the above statements of the “robust” critical realism have not been selected arbitrarily; we do not adhere to them because they are likeable but because indirect evidence can be obtained for them by converting opposing propositions into a contradiction.

The methodological tools used in the study included conceptual analysis, a traditional method of philosophy adopted by information science, and content analysis as used by library and information science. With conceptual analysis, concepts are defined through their essential properties and classified, with relationships being identified among them. Content analysis served to identify the basic content units of the analysed texts and to discuss them with regard to the basic questions presented in the theoretical part of the work.

Part I. Concepts, Definitions and Classification in the Light of Epistemology and Methodology

2 Epistemology, Methodology, Method and Methodics

Science is a type of human knowledge which is characterized by its emphasis on methodology and methods (Skácel and Skácel, 1945, p. 85). At a general level, knowledge is the subject matter of a branch of philosophy named epistemology (noetics, gnoseology, theory of knowledge). Being a type of knowledge, science has adopted various ways of solving epistemological problems from philosophy (Demjančuk, 2002, p. 9), both explicitly and implicitly. Based on the adopted strategies, science creates its own methodology, an analysis of the methods applied to science in general as well as those specific to particular scientific disciplines.

Although discipline-specific methodology is created by scientists in a given field, methodology is, similarly to epistemology, a scientific tool rather than a discipline per se (Anzenbacher, 1990, p. 22). Discipline-specific methodology focuses on the study and on the development of methods for a given discipline, determining which methods are acceptable in a given field, which are to be used for research into a particular type of problems, and how the methods are to be applied. The methods that have been decided upon are then used for solving particular scientific problems. For the process of the application of a method the term “methodics” is used. The relationship between epistemology, methodology, methods and methodics is shown in the diagram below.

Fig. 1: The relationship among epistemology, methodology, method and methodics (cf. Ochrana, 2009, p. 11)

As already indicated above, epistemology and methodology are philosophical tools that stand separately from the specialised scientific disciplines. Epistemology is the study of the possibilities and the structure of human cognition. Methodology is both a philosophical discipline dealing with the study of scientific methods in general and the study of the methods pertaining to a particular subject field. A method refers to a way of investigating phenomena that is used in science in general or in a particular subject field. Methodics is the instructions on the application of methods (cf. Ochrana, 2009, pp. 11–12). The present study focuses primarily on the epistemological and methodological questions.

Although epistemology is the basis of every scientific discipline (Fuchs, 1995, p. 127),
in many disciplines this fact is not reflected. General epistemological questions and the scientists’ own methodology are usually not questioned or revised until problems occur; that is, until the application of particular methods fails, leads to a scientific impasse or yields paradoxical results that defy common sense (cf. Kuhn, 1997, pp. 75–97). A typical example of this is quantum mechanics (Heisenberg, 2000), whose findings sparked a wave of interest in epistemological questions in physics due to their seeming disaccord with the principle of contradiction, the fundamental principle of scientific research (to this day, no universal agreement has been reached among physicists on the interpretation of the results).

2.1 Epistemology and Methodology in Information Science

In the field of information science, the groundswell of interest in epistemological questions was connected primarily with paradigmatic turns (Steinerová, 2011, pp. 13–15). The cognitive, sociological, contextual and linguistic turns directed their attention to the problems related to the creation, representation and use of information, which are closely linked to the theory of knowledge. Naïve realism, which laid an epistemological basis for the object paradigm in information science and which considered knowledge unproblematic, was replaced by empiricism or rationalism (cognitive paradigm), social constructivism (sociological paradigm), relativism (contextual paradigm), and by semantic analysis (linguistic paradigm).

Naturally, the new epistemological bases affected the respective methodologies used in information science. Empiricism, which accepts only sensory experience as a valid source of knowledge, promoted the study of observable information-related behaviour of individuals (Fisher, Erdelez, McKechnie, 2005). Rationalism, on the other hand, which stresses the importance of rational analysis, introduced into information science the modelling and study of conceptual frameworks of information users and creators (Belkin, 1980). In line with its assumption that knowledge is socially conditioned, social constructivism stood at the basis of the sociological turn in information science that emphasized the study of how knowledge is affected by social structures (Hjørland and Albrechtsen, 1995; Cornelius, 2002). Epistemological relativism, as a denial of generalizations and unconditioned truths, can be considered an instigator of the contextual turn which promoted placing information into the context of unique, one-of-a-kind situations (Goguen, 1997). Within the linguistic paradigm of the information science, logical semantics and semiotics were prominent, stressing the importance of the study of information that is encoded in signs (Floridi, 2011b).

The present paper aims primarily at answering the question of how the formulated epistemological questions and the related methodologies affect the understanding of the role of concepts and their definitions in science, and also how this is reflected in the attempted definitions and classifications of the concept of information.

3 Epistemology and Methodology

Epistemology is a key discipline for all the ways of gaining knowledge that are to be built on a solid foundation. It is the starting point of not only the other philosophical disciplines (ontology, ethics, etc.), but also of the specialised scientific disciplines. The Czech philosopher Jiří Fuchs describes epistemology’s position as follows:

"But why is noetics a logical first among philosophical disciplines? All other disciplines base the possible certainty of their conclusions on a noetic solution to the general problem of certainty – whether it is even possible. Without the backing of noetics, the conclusions of other sciences are subject to permanent, fundamental doubt. Noetic investigation of the possibility of scientifically certain conclusions, on the other hand, is not contingent on the results of any other philosophical discipline. And since noetics is in principle not otherwise dependent on the special conclusions of the individual disciplines, it must be positioned at the outset of philosophical cognition. [...] Thus, ontology bases its validity in the noetic evaluation of the instrument of philosophy, while noetics, in principle, does not require an ontological solution of the issue of existence for its conclusions. Here, the logical dependency is one-sided. It is therefore logical to precede ontology with noetic investigation.” (Fuchs, 1995, p. 27)

Epistemology focuses on addressing two key questions which determine whether science is even possible and what approach to investigating reality is adopts (cf. Fuchs, 1995, p. 127). We can formulate these two questions as follows (cf. Skácel and Skácel, 1945, p. 90):

1. Can knowledge have value (i.e. can it be objective, true and certain)?

2. What structure does the cognition process have (what is the role of the object and subject, what processes take place during cognition, etc.)?

A positive answer to the first question is provided by realism, a negative one by scepticism.

In the context of the second epistemological question, the conception of the role of the subject and the object in cognition plays an important role (Glazier, 2004, p. 284). Overvaluing the significance of the object is characteristic of objectivism; the subject is typically overvalued by subjectivism. It can be said that realism as a response to the first question goes hand in hand with a tendency towards objectivism when answering the second question. On the other hand, scepticism in relation to the first question is usually associated with subjectivism as the answer to the second question.

A modified objectivism-subjectivism continuum by Jack D. Glazier (2004, p. 284) can be used to illustrate the positions of the individual approaches from radical objectivism to extreme subjectivism.

Extreme Subjectivism




Extreme Objectivism

Social constructivism

Cognitive paradigm Hermeneutics

Domain approach

Aristotelian approach

Conception of information related to the created personal identity

Physicalist paradigm, Evolutionary approach

Table 1 Subjectivism-objectivism continuum

3.1 Realism and Scepticism in Information Science

In information science and related fields, we can distinguish a wide range of stronger and weaker variations of realism, from the naïve physicalist realism (1990, 2002; Gackowski, 2010) and the object-oriented paradigm (Otlet, 1934; Briet, 2006) to a strong version of epistemological realism associated with Aristotelian philosophy (Barn, 2010a; 2011b) to a weaker version in the form of metaphysical realism (Hjørland, 2004).

Similarly, the sceptical epistemology contains both moderate and stronger variations. The more moderate versions of scepticism include, for example, a hermeneutic approach in information science (Capurro, 2003); the stronger scepticism stems mainly from postmodernism and French post-structuralism (Frohmann, 1994).

From a methodological point of view, it is clear that while realism gravitates towards creating theories (Bates, 2005; 2006), scepticism either deals with their criticism from different standpoints (Hjørland, 2011) or focuses on simple positivist data collection (Otlet, 1934).

3.2 Objectivism and Subjectivism in Information Science

Extreme objectivism and subjectivism is characterised by the reduction of subject to object and vice versa (objectivism considers cognition a way of existence of the object; subjectivism views existence as a way of cognising the subject). The approach closest to extreme objectivism is physicalist paradigm (Stonier, 1990) and all the approaches based on evolutionism (Bates, 2005; 2006; Bawden, 2007; 2011). Extreme subjectivism, on the other hand, is typical of social constructivism (Savolainen, Tuominen, Talja, 2005), according to which reality is socially (i.e. subjectively) constructed, not cognised.

Between these two extremes we find a myriad of variations which to a greater or lesser extent gravitate towards objectivism or subjectivism. A distinctly objectivistic approach is empiricism, which views the subject as constituted by the objects of cognition – by the flow of information (Floridi, 2011b). Midway between objectivism and subjectivism lies realism, which seeks to evenly reflect the role of the object and the subject. Aristotelian realism is closer to objectivism (Stodola, 2011b), while domain analysis is closer to subjectivism (Hjørland, 2004). The two approaches relatively close to subjectivism are those that are rationalism-based: cognitive paradigm (Ingwersen, 1996) and integrative hermeneutics (Capurro, 2003).

In the context of methodology, objectivism is characterised by a wide speculative scope (Stonier, 1990) and generously conceived empirical projects (Otlet, 1934). Subjectivism focuses more on the analysis of the subjective conditions of cognition (whether the subject is taken individually or collectively), usually tending towards methodological reflection (Capurro and Hjørland, 2003). The approaches in the centre lean towards cognitive optimism combined with critical examination of the assumptions of cognition and of the theoretical and methodological bases of research (Stodola, 2011b).

4 Concept and its Definition and Classification

Understanding of the role of concepts and their definition and classification is closely related to the answers to the basic epistemological questions. Naïve realism considers definitions and classifications unproblematic (Bates, 2005; 2006), whereas scepticism views them as impossible or harmful (Day, 2001). Thus, the attempt to carefully define concepts is more typical of the authors whose approach is not at either end of the continuum (Losee, 1997; Floridi, 2011a).

Extreme objectivistic approaches consider concepts more or less identical to the objects of investigation (concepts are in a way part of reality) (Gackowski, 2010), while extreme subjectivistic approaches view objects as conceptual constructs (reality is only shaped by the creation of concepts) (Cornelius, 2002).

The topic of concepts and their definitions and classifications with regard to the epistemological and methodological bases will be examined in a greater detail in the following subchapters.

4.1 Concept

Concept can generally be characterised as a way of presenting a part of reality (object) in cognition (subject) (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, p. 38). Scientific concepts are general, meaning that a single concept can capture a quality with a multiple occurrence in reality (for example, through the concept human we express what is common to all the people who have lived, live and will live on Earth) (Ochrana, 2009, p. 29). It is necessary to distinguish between concept as an abstract entity and as a term (a particular language expression) by which the concept is labelled. The term is a material sign designating the concept; the concept is the meaning of the term. The concept represents an object in cognition; the term is a language entity that refers to the object. The relationship between terms, concepts and objects is often shown using the triangle of reference (Ibidem, p. 28). Wolfgang G. Stock (2010, p. 1952) depicts the triangle as follows:

Fig. 2 Semiotic triangle in information science by W. G. Stock (2010, p. 1952)

4.1.1 Detailed Structure of Concept

The relationship between terms, concepts and objects shown above corresponds to the spirit of moderate realism. Word is synonymous with term (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, p. 40); concept corresponds to the subjective (formal) concept (Ibidem, p. 43), i.e. the concept in the human mind. Property is what traditional logic

Fig. 3 Triangle of reference

calls objective concept, i.e. a concept that is viewed as independent of human thinking (Ibidem, p. 48). The set of objects to which the concept is assigned is the scope of the concept, that is, its extension (Ibidem, pp. 57–58). Material objects are objects with everything that pertains to them. At the general level, the overlap between a material object and a property (objective concept) is called the content of the term – intension. With respect to subjects the overlap is called a formal subject. A term has a meaning in the form of a formal concept and a denotation in the form of an objective concept. At the same time, it refers to a set of material objects. Formal concept refers to the intension and extension. Formal concept is a representation of objects; term is the expression of the formal concept.

4.1.2 Concept and Basic Epistemological Questions

The varying conceptions of concepts and of their relation to reality are associated with different answers to the basic epistemological questions that we addressed in the previous chapter. Namely, the way of understanding concepts is related to the second epistemological question because it focuses on the structure of knowledge; however, it needs to be borne in mind that the answer to the second question is linked to the answer to the first question. In order to model the different approaches to concepts we will draw on the classical philosophical conception of concepts (Skácel and Skácel, 1945; Novák and Dvořák, 2007; Gredt, 2009); to investigate the relation of the above questions to information science, Popper’s three worlds (Popper, 1991) and Dervin’s Information 1, 2 and 3 model (Dervin, 1977) will be used. It is clear, therefore, that we will focus not only on the concept of information as such, but also on the relationship between information and concepts. While it is the concept of information that is of primary interest here, information as a concept will be investigated secondarily.

Within the objectivist approaches, two basic conceptions of concepts can be distinguished: an extremely realistic and a moderately realistic one (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 80–89). The subjectivistic understanding of concepts is represented by conceptualism and nominalism (Ibidem, pp. 90–93). The above distinction is shown in the table below.

Objectivism (Realism)

Subjectivism (Scepticism)

Extreme realism

Moderate realism



Table 2: Basic approaches to the understanding of concepts

4.1.3 Extreme Realism

Extreme realism considers concepts to be objectively existing (either in the material world or in the transcendental realm of ideas) in the same form in which they are present in thought, that is, including the general aspects that have been added by the cognising structures. Extreme realism exists in two forms: Platonic and Scholastic (the latter is called ultra-realism).

According to the Platonic realism, there are concepts that exist separately from and ahead of the material world, with the physical things being what they are because of their participation in concepts (Plato, 1993; Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 80–81). The concepts in human minds are innate; the physical things make it possible for a person to recall a concept that they already know (Plato, 1994). The concept is present in the human mind because before birth the human soul resided in the realm of ideas (Plato, 1993).

In information science, a conception close to Platonism is Popper's theory of three worlds (Brookes, 1980; Dervin, 1977). According to Popper (1991), World 1 is a world of physical objects, World 2 is a world of the mental processes of the cognising subject, and World 3 is objective knowledge (the realm of ideas). Brenda Dervin (1977) views
World 3 as that of predetermined human behaviour that serves as information input (Information 3) for human communication and information retrieval, and that affects the communication between Information 1 (World 1) associated with the physical world and subjective Information 2 (World 3). Information 3 is similar in its aprioristic status to the objectively existing and at the same time innate Platonistic ideas.

Fig. 4 Platonic realism

The scholastic extreme realism (ultrarealism) places concepts in the realm of the material world, but at the same time argues that there is always a single and general occurrence of the concept in everything it can be assigned to (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 82–83). The cognising subject views the concepts directly, experiencing them precisely in the form in which they exist.

The scholastic type of extreme realism (ultra-realism) places concepts in the realm of the material world but at the same time argues that there is always a single and general occurrence of the concept in everything the concept can be assigned to (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 82–83). The cognising subject views the concepts directly, experiencing them precisely in the form in which they exist.

Fig. 5 Extreme scholastic realism

The conception of information that is closest to the extreme scholastic realism is that of a “factor in form” (Gackowski, 2010) which can freely and in an unchanged form be transferred from one system to another. However, the physicalist view rejects subjectivity, that is, World 2. Essentially, the physicalist view only knows World 1, to which World 3 is immanent as the information structure of material things that is transferable from one system to another.

Extreme realism considers all concepts univocal, i.e. unequivocally attributable to objects. This is evident, for example, in the attempt to create a unified theory of information (Hofkirchner, 1999) and in the characterisation of information as a “model of organisation” (Bates, 2006). Such a concept of information can, according to its authors, be unequivocally attributed even to entities seemingly as different as DNA and an e-mail (see Capurro, Fleissner and Hofkirchner, 1999).

6 Moderate Realism

A central position between objectivism and subjectivism is occupied by moderate realism (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 83–89). According to moderate realism, concepts are located in the mind of the cognising subject. In the realm of reality, all the objects that can be captured by a single concept are of the same nature, which, however, is individualised in every object (the same kind of difference exists between the biological concepts genome and genotype, with a genome containing the information common to all the individuals of the same species, and a genotype is a genome individualised into a phenotype – a particular individual of a given species). During cognition, individual differences are abstracted away, leaving only what is common to all the individuals of a given species. In this way a concept is created, an abstract entity that is characterised by the generic features, meaning that a single concept can be used for many objects. It can be said that a concept exists in material objects as potentially general, with generality lending itself to be abstracted. The general concept is found in thinking.

Fig. 6 Moderate realism

Moderate realism sees World 3 as intelligible, that is, able to be grasped by reason. An attempt to introduce into information science a moderately realistic conception of concept was done by Jiří Stodola (2010a; 2011b).

Moderate realists distinguish between univocal concepts (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, p. 74), which can be unequivocally assigned to objects (in their entire content), and between analogous concepts (Ibidem, p. 78) that are assigned to objects in different ways (every object is only assigned a part of the content of the concept) based on structural similarity. The analogous concepts are transcendental (Ibidem, p. 66), meaning that they extend beyond all categories and are assigned to everything that is. The concept of information was found to be an analogous one (Stodola, 2010).

4.1.5 Conceptualism

Conceptualism is similar to moderate realism, with the difference that concepts do not exist in reality but are constructed by the cognising subject using their cognitive structures (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 90–92). The participation of reality consists in providing sensory data, based on which the concepts are created by the subject.

Conceptualism is characterised by a complete absence of World 3. In philosophy, a typical conceptualist is Immanuel Kant (2001); in information science, conceptualism is associated with the cognitive paradigm (Belkin, 1990) and integrative hermeneutics (Capurro, 2003). In the conceptualist view,

Fig. 7 Conceptualism

all general terms are either analogous or equivocal (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 74–75). Only parts exist; the general is a construct with no basis in the reality. Therefore, only singular concepts, which are assigned to a single individual, can be unequivocal. General concepts are either analogous or equivocal, because there are no natural properties that would be common to multiple individuals and that could be captured by a general concept. Thus, general concepts are not general in the true sense of the word; rather, they are sets of the rather fuzzy natural properties of the individuals. Therefore, no general concept can be unequivocally (i.e. using the whole content of the concept) assigned to an individual.

4.1.6 Nominalism

Nominalism (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 92–93) displays the most extreme approach in understanding concepts. According to nominalism, a concept merges with the term (material sign), that refers directly to objects of the material world. The meanings of the terms are determined by the conventions of the community that uses them.

Fig. 8 Nominalism

It may be noticed that nominalism considers terms and the objects referred to by these terms to be fully immanent to the physical world, i.e. World 1. However, this does not mean that nominalism is not subjectivistic. Conversely, it is extremely subjectivistic. The whole community that uses signs to designate objects is a subject, and the community’s convention governs the relationship between terms and objects. The meanings of terms are determined by agreement rather than by the natural relationship between the object and the concept in the knowledge of the subject. In information science, nominalism is associated with social constructivism (Savolainen, Tuominen, Talja, 2005) and discourse analysis (Frohmann, 1994).

According to nominalism, general terms are equivocal, meaning that every object is unique and its contents cannot be captured by a general term. Attaching words to objects itself does not capture the structure of reality, but serves as a communication tool between people.

The Conception of Concepts in Information Science

The above conceptions of concepts have a crucial impact on methodology. Proponents of extreme realism believe that concepts and the reality essentially merge. In practice, this merging can lead to a failure to realise the differences between the reality and the theory through which we try to grasp reality. Using concepts the extreme realists believe that they are in a direct, unmediated contact with objects. Within the discourse of extreme realism, the epistemological and methodological questions are entirely marginal (Stonier, 1990; Bates, 2006; Bawden, 2011).

The moderate realists, on the other hand, are aware of the difference between objects and the concepts assigned to them. They understand that a concept is an abstraction from reality, at the same time believing that it corresponds to reality in a way. Therefore, they show an interest in epistemological questions, investigating the extent to which concepts correspond to the reality (Dretske, 1981; Losee, 1997; Stodola, 2011b).

Conceptualists, for whom the relationship between a concept and the reality is loose, are more interested in the subjective side of conceptualism, that is, in the cognitive structures of the subject. Conceptualism is characterised by an emphasis on the subject as an individual – its representatives are proponents of methodological individualism (Hjørland and Albrechtsen, 1995). They are interested particularly in the internal consistency of a system of concepts (Belkin, 1980; Ingwersen, 1996).

Nominalists, too, are interested in the subjective side of concepts (terms), but they understand the subject from the point of view of methodological collectivism (Hjørland and Albrechtsen, 1995). Here, the main topics of interest include the social side of the genesis and of the transfer of scientific terms and the way they are used in scientific discourse (Frohmann, 1994; Day, 2001).

Wolfgang G. Stock (2010, s. 1953) presents the various ways of understanding concepts in information science using the following diagram:

Fig. 9 Epistemological schools and theories of concept in information science

The above scheme is incomplete due to the absence of realism. Rationalism and hermeneutics can be classified as conceptualistic, pragmatism, empiricism and critical theory as nominalistic. From the point of view of theory, at minimum, realistic conceptions should not be missing; however, it is quite likely that realism in social sciences and humanities has such a weak voice that it can easily be missed.

4.2 Definitions

A definition is a unit of thought expressed in words that explains what the defined thing is (that is, it tells us about its essence) (Skácel and Skácel, 1945, pp. 76–77; Materna and Petrželka, 2008).

When defining things we start with a verbal (nominal) definition which says how a term is to be understood based on its etymology and common use. Nominalists usually do not go beyond the verbal definition. In science, nominalists are interested in how the term is used in professional discourse, rather than what it actually refers to. Realism goes beyond the verbal definition to a factual one, which characterises what a given thing is.

Factual definitions can be external or internal. An internal definition explains what a given thing is through the thing’s basic aspects (for example, a cultural artifact is a thing that aids human adaptation to the environment). An external definition explains what a given thing is using aspects and principles that are external to the object (a cultural artifact is a man-made object).

An internal definition can be substantial or descriptive. A substantial definition expresses the essence of a given thing (car is a cultural artifact used as a means of transport). A descriptive definition explains the thing through its properties (car is a cultural artifact that has four wheels).

Substantial definitions can be divided into metaphysical and physical ones. A metaphysical definition expresses the principles that are constitutive of the thing (man is a reasonable animal). Metaphysical principles are essentially the same, differing only conceptually (the core of a metaphysical definition is always the defined thing). A physical definition characterises a given thing based on principles that are different from each other (a human being is a unity of body and soul).

The goal of defining is to achieve an internal substantial, metaphysical definition. A definition consists of the defined term (definiendum), which refers to a particular concept and, through this concept, to a particular thing, and of two terms (definiens) referring to particular concepts which are combined to construct the defined concept.

Fig. 10 Realistic conception of definition

Through this concept the defined thing is expressed. For a definition to be true, the defined term and the defining terms need to refer to the same concept and the same thing. Genus (family) concepts are defined using the nearest genus and difference (a man is a rational animal).

An extremely realistic definition disregards the difference between a concept in thinking and a concept in the reality; a conceptualistic definition disregards things, a nominalistic one disregards concepts.

A definition is to be clear, composed of the nearest genus and difference. It should not be negative, vague or too wide or narrow.

From the point of view of epistemology and methodology, three types of approaches to definitions can be distinguished:

  • realistic,

  • instrumentalistic,

  • definition-rejecting.

The realistic approach associated with realism and objectivism views definitions as more or less corresponding to the reality, that is, as more or less true. Marcia J. Bates (2005; 2006) takes a realistic approach to definitions. Instrumentalism, which is associated with a more moderate version of scepticism and subjectivism, sees definitions not as true or false, but as more or less useful for the purposes of a given theory. Rafael Capurro and Birger Hjørland express this in the following words:

In scientific discourse, theoretical concepts are not true or false elements or glimpses of some element of reality; rather, they are constructions designed to do a job in the best possible way. Different conceptions of fundamental terms like information are thus more or less fruitful, depending on the theories (and in the end, the practical actions) they are expected to support. (Capurro and Hjørland, 2003, p. 344)

Extreme scepticism rejects definitions completely as essentially harmful (Day, 2001).

4.3 Division and Classification

Division is the breakdown of the whole into parts based on a particular viewpoint (Skácel and Skácel, 1945, pp. 77–78; Gredt, 2009, pp. 53–54). Multiple dividing is called classification2.

A whole is what is composed of parts or can be notionally divided into them. The whole can either be real, that is, composed of physical or metaphysical parts, or logical. A physical unit consists of parts that differ from each other at the level of reality (parts of the human body); a metaphysical unit consists of parts distinguishable at the level of virtuality (this latter distinction, too, has a basis in reality; an example may be the difference between genotype and phenotype in biology, or between the content and form of a document in information science). A logical whole can be divided into parts only notionally; it has no parts at the ontological level (for example, a general concept contains a number of potential, logical parts).

The combination of parts into a whole can be essential (without its parts the whole cannot be what it is, e.g. a phenotype cannot exist without a genotype); random (that is, not constitutive of the essence of the whole; for example, a person who loses his or her finger remains a human being); or integral (not constitutive of the essence of the whole but necessary for its completeness (a person without a finger is a human being but it is a human being that is lacking something). Parts of a whole can be homogeneous (the same; for example, water molecules), heterogeneous (diverse; for example, a garbage dump) or organic (each part performs a certain function in a whole, such as the organs of the human body).

We distinguish several types division and classification based on the nature of the whole and its parts: real or logical, physical or metaphysical, substantial or random. The process of division should adhere to the following principles:

  • the parts into which the whole is divided must be proportional to the whole (they need to correspond to it);

  • no part shall contain more than the whole or shall not be equal to the whole;

  • no part of the whole shall include another part of it;

  • a classification contains primarily the parts that are directly constitutive of the whole; only then can these parts be understood as a whole and further divided.

In a vein similar to the above, several approaches to classification are distinguished: According to realism, a definition corresponds to the reality; therefore, realists attempt a real classification (Bates, 2006). Instrumentalism considers classifications to be our aids, which implies that from the instrumentalist point of view, every classification is logical (Floridi, 2011a). Extreme scepticism rejects classifications completely (Day, 2001).

Part II. Definition and Classification of the Concept of Information by a Selection of Authors: Content Analysis and Interpretation

5 Methods of Analysis

This analytical section focuses on assessing the various definitions and classifications of the concept of information with regard to the epistemological and methodological examinations that were carried out in the first part. The method utilised in this part is qualitative content analysis (as used in library and information science) and interpretation. Our starting points are realistic, meaning that:

  1. we do not consider a text to be a distinctive structure that exists on its own; rather, we view it as a set of signs expressing the ideas of a particular author;

  2. the ideas of a particular author are viewed as more or less corresponding to reality.

Content analysis (what a text says explicitly or implicitly) is therefore inherently associated with conceptual analysis (what the conceptual structure of a text is); conceptual analysis, in turn, is associated with semantic analysis (what the concepts refer to). For the above approach to analysis and interpretation, the most suitable method appears to be reconstructive hermeneutics (Stodola, 2011b), whose goals are proper understanding and interpretation of a text. The basic principles of reconstructive hermeneutics are the following:

  1. the canon of the autonomy of the object (this prohibits the wrong attribution of ideas and intentions to the author of the text; this principle is a part of information ethics);

  2. canon of completeness (a text needs to be interpreted from a broader perspective; therefore, we will attempt to put the text into a context comprised by the social and individual conditions of its origin);

  3. canon of the actuality of understanding (it is clear that we cannot disregard our own subjectivity and that we can only understand the text “in our own way”, that is, using our own conceptual framework and our own thinking; however, this does not exclude that we can more or less correctly understand the text);

  4. canon of the adequacy of understanding (we should try to harmonise our own subjectivity with the input received from the text).

5.1 Selection of Texts

The selection of texts was done based on the epistemological and methodological research presented in the theoretical part of the paper. The selected texts are representative of all the approaches described in the theoretical part, starting with extreme realism and objectivism to extreme scepticism and subjectivism. In addition, we based our selection on the approaches to the definition and classification of the concept of information provided by Marcia J. Bates (2010). Bates distinguishes seven of them.

  1. approach based on communication and semiotics,

  2. activity-based approach,

  3. propositional approach,

  4. structural approach,

  5. social approach,

  6. multi-type approach, and

  7. deconstructionist approach.

The structural and multi-type approaches can be linked to can be associated with extreme realism and objectivism (Bates, 2006). Moderate realism is represented by the propositional and communication-semiotics approaches. With respect to the latter approach it is necessary to take consideration of the way in which the role of propositions and signs is understood by the author. If they are understood in a realistic way, they can be classified as realistic (Losee, 1997; Derr, 1985; Dretske, 1981). On the other hand, a conceptualistic view of propositions and a nominalistic approach to signs are associated with subjectivism (Fox, 1983). The activity-based approach (Pratt, 1977) as well as some of the variations of the semiotics-based approach are associated with moderate scepticism and subjectivism (Floridi, 2011a). The social (Goguen, 1997) and deconstructionist (Day, 2001; Frohmann, 2004) approaches are connected with extreme scepticism and subjectivism.

The authors were selected primarily based on the typicality of their viewpoints. Our analysis focused on the questions discussed in the theoretical part. We were particularly interested in the following: How does the author approach epistemological and methodological questions (are they implicitly contained in the text or explicitly discussed)? How does the author view concepts (in a realistic, conceptual or nominalistic way)? How does the author understand the role of definition and classification in science? How does the author define and classify the concept of information and how this is linked to the answers to the previous questions?

6 Extreme Realism and Objectivism

Extreme realism and objectivism in information science can be viewed as including the physicalist paradigm (Stonier, 1990), some of the structural (MacKay, 1969) and evolutionism-based (Bates, 2005; 2006; Bawden, 2007; 2011), approaches; the latter also includes some of the multi-type approaches.

Tom Stonier views information as a “capacity to organize a system – or to maintain it in an organised state” (Stonier, 1990, p. 26), considering information, alongside matter and energy, to be a basic property of the Universe. He proposes the existence of an elementary particle of information which he calls an “infon”.

Donald MacKay understands information in the Aristotelian sense as “that which determines form” (McKay, 1969, p. 160). He defines information associated with knowledge as “that which adds to a representation” (MacKay, 1969, p. 63). He distinguishes three types of information content: structural, metric and selective.

Zbigniew Gackowski (2010) defines information as “anything in form”. By using the transcendental concept of “anything” (Gredt, 2009, p. 341) that accommodates everything that is, Gackowski suggests that he views information as a transcendental concept. Because there is no other classification of the concept of information in his work we assume that Gackowski considers information to be a univocal concept. At various points in his work, Gackowski refers to information as a “factor in form” or “pattern in form”, using the two terms synonymously.

Drawing on Popper's Three Worlds, Brenda Dervin (1977) distinguishes Information 1 (related to the material world), Information 2 (related to the subject) and Information 3 (located in the abstract realm of ideas that investigates the relationship between Information 1 and Information 2). Dervin’s distinction is in a way similar to Plato's epistemology (Plato, 1993; 1994), according to which a man is able to understand material things only insofar as they help to recollect innate ideas.

David Bawden (2007; 2011) distinguishes three types of information. The first type is information which is related to the physical world and associated with organization and order; the second is biological information associated with meaning and viewed as the “incarnation of knowledge”; and the third is social information whose prerequisite is understanding and which is considered to be the “recorded knowledge”. (Bawden’s classification is similar to the conception of Marcia J. Bates which is discussed below.)

A similar, hierarchically ordered conception of reality can be found in Fleissner and Hofkirchner (1996), who distinguish a physical, biological and cultural levels of information. The physical layer of information is associated with the systems that are self-structuring, the biological layer involves self-reproducing systems, and the cultural level contains self-creating systems. The physical layer is associated with the syntactic level of information, the biological layer with the semantic level and the cultural layer with the pragmatic level.

For analysis we chose an evolutionary conception of information by Marcia J. Bates (2005; 2006).

6.1 Structural and Multi-type Approach: Marcia J. Bates

Marcia J. Bates is a Professor Emeritus of information science at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California. In her professional career she focuses mainly on information behaviour and on proposing user-oriented information systems. In her work she draws on methodological individualism. When defining and classifying the concept of information (Bates, 2005; 2006), Bates draws on the evolutionary conception of information, describing her own approach as a structural and multi-type one (Bates, 2010).

For Bates as a representative of the evolutionary approach, a “naïve” approach to epistemological questions is typical. Generally speaking, evolutionists can be characterised by placing ontology before epistemology (Šmajs, 2008, p. 39). Drawing on the ontological premise of the existence of evolution processes the evolutionists understand knowledge as a property associated with certain types of systems that formed in the course of evolution. For these systems, knowledge is a means of adaptation to the environment; therefore, it must be in accord with reality. However, such an approach to knowledge is characterised by unacceptable circularity. Evolutionists rely on that knowledge allows us to regard evolution as reality; as such, evolution then ensures the adequacy of knowledge.

Bates (2005) focuses on epistemological and methodological issues particularly with regard to the difference between the understanding of information and the cognitive and social paradigms in information science. She does not see these as opposing each other, though. At this point it should be noted that while Bates’ objectivistic, evolutionary and ontologically-oriented view can accommodate subjectivist approaches (for objectivists, the subjective is a part of the objective), epistemologically-oriented subjectivists and social constructivists view her approach as one of the possible epistemological approaches influenced by many different factors (for subjectivists, the pursuit of objectivity is a subjective way of understanding the world). Although both approaches can exist side by side, viewing each other “in their own way”, communication between them is quite difficult, as can be seen in the polemics between Bates and Hjørland (Bates, 2011; Hjørland, 2011).

Bates (2005; 2006) defines the information as a pattern of organization. She distinguishes between patterns of the first order (the patterns immanent to structure, formal cause) and patterns of the second order (viewed as something to be achieved, the final cause). Nevertheless, she does not consider the above distinction to be important for her conception of information. Bates (2005) is aware that her definition presents information as related to everything that exists, but at the same time rightly notes that information can be seen as an immaterial pattern of organisation (thus, her approach can be viewed as a form of ontological dualism).

It is clear, though, that Bates considers information a transcendental concept. The above makes it possible to excuse the circularity of her definition (information and organisation can be viewed as having the same meaning and thus establishing insufficient difference; however, elementary concepts only lend themselves to circular nominal definitions). As Bates aims for a precise classification of the concept of information, she appears to consider the concept to be more analogous. Lacking a sophisticated methodological basis, her classification seems rather chaotic at first glance. However, a deeper analysis reveals the absence of any serious classification errors.

Bates (2006) considers all information to be natural. This term seems somewhat redundant from the point of view of classification, given that according to Bates, no information other than natural exists. The basic classification of information is between information related to living systems and that related to non-living systems (though this distinction is only implicit). Information related to non-living systems is not addressed at all. Information associated with living systems is referred to as represented information. The differentiation from the other types of information consists in that represented information is either encoded or embodied. Such a double disjunctive terminology is rather unfortunate; a better solution would be to distinguish between encoded represented information on the one hand and embodied represented information on the other.

Represented information is divided into genetic, neural-cultural and exosomatic.

Genetic information is encoded in a genotype and embodied in phenotype.

Neural-cultural information is encoded in the brain and embodied as experienced information, enacted information and expressed information. The distinction here is between knowledge, action and communication. Given that Bates draws a difference between information encoded in the brain and between experience, she seems to hold a form of dualism with respect to the relationship between the body and the mind (Havel, 2001, pp. 57–60). In any case, she does not hold the physicalist opinion that the mind and the brain are synonymous.

Exosomatic information is embodied in a material artifact (it is probably also encoded in the brain, although Bates does not explicitly mention this). Exosomatic information is actually an extended phenotype (Dawkins, 1999). Such artifacts can be of two kinds: either they are the result of instinctive activity (beaver dam) or rational activity (automobile). Bates sees no significant difference between the two types of artifacts. Exosomatic information can be practice-oriented and not involving signs. Bates labels such information as embedded; examples include manmade tools. Sign-based information on a physical media is recorded information. This last category includes all types of documents and works of art. The classification of the concept of information by Bates can be illustrated as follows:

Fig. 11 Classification of information by Bates

Bates further distinguishes between Information 1 and 2. Information 1 is the objective pattern of organisation. Information 2 is based on Information 1. It is a pattern of organization that is given meaning by living systems with knowledge. It is evident here that Bates draws a distinction between the order of being and the order of knowledge and that she takes a realistic viewpoint. Knowledge is information which is given meaning (Information 2) and is integrated into other knowledge.

In addition to Information 1 and 2, Bates (2005) distinguishes data 1 and 2. Data 1 constitutes what is readily available in the information environment. It is precisely this availability that makes data 1 different from Information. When data 1 is given meaning, it becomes Information 2. Data 2 represents the information environment of the human culture. Information 2 is derived from data 1. Thanks to Information 2, the human culture is created (given as data 2). People draw information from data 1 and 2.

According to Bates (2006), her definition and classification of information can be used in information behaviour research, research in information genres and for the characterisation of the collections of memory institutions.

When investigating information behaviour we can distinguish several basic types of information. When a person searches for information, they already have some experience (experienced information) they seek to expand. During the search, they affect their environment (enacted information) and communicate with other people (expressed information), using physical tools (embedded information) and sign-encoded information (recorded information).

We can distinguish three types of information genres: performative (expressed information), fine art (embedded information) and literary genres (recorded information).

Library collections contain recorded information in published form; archives collect recorded information in unpublished form; and museums deal with collecting physical artifacts (embedded information).

In summary, it can be said that Marcia J. Bates is representative of a moderate version of objectivism, particularly because she does not thoroughly consider epistemological questions and, in line with evolutionists, places ontology before epistemology, which leads to circular justification of the value of knowledge and to rejection of discord with other existing paradigms of information science. Her distinction between Information 1 and 2 acknowledges both the subjectivity of living entities and the fact that cognition is based on information found in reality itself; by this she approaches moderate realism.

From the point of view of classification theory, her classification of concepts is not particularly precise. First, some of the terms are redundant (natural information); second, the use of differences is not symmetrical. At the highest level, the difference is disjunctive (encoded or embodied); at the second level, it is missing completely; at the other levels only the terms encoded and embodied are used. In addition, the second of her two classifications, in which she distinguishes Information 1 and 2, bears no clear connection to the first classification. Neither is she clear about the relationship between Data 1 and Information 1.

7 Moderate Realism and Objectivism

A moderately realistic viewpoint can be found among the authors who, unlike nominalists, consider information to be distinct from a sequence of signals or signs, seeking it in meaning of signals or signs, that is, in the idea they represent, and who, in addition, include the category of truth in their conceptions, which sets them apart from conceptualists.

One such author is Richard Derr, who argues that “information is an abstract, meaningful representation of determinations which have been made of objects” (Derr, 1985, p. 29). The above definition is elaborated on using five criteria. Crucially, information in his view is abstract, i.e. independent of the means through which it is communicated (which is contrary to the view of nominalists) and is at the same time determined by the object rather than created by the subject (which is in opposition to conceptualism).

Dretske defines information as that which “is capable of yielding knowledge, and since knowledge requires truth, information requires it also” (Dretske, 1981, p. 45)”. It can be seen in the above that Dretske has a realistic view of knowledge, considering it adequate to reality (true). If information is to expand knowledge, it must be true as well. Jiří Stodola (2010b, pp. 66–70) holds a similar view.

Frederik Thomson sees information as “a product that results from applying the processes of organization to the raw material of experience, much like steel is obtained from iron ore” (Thomson, 1968, p. 305). This metaphor is reminiscent of the way moderate realists view the creation of concepts: sensory perception supplies material for abstraction; the general concept is potentially present in the sensory material, just as steel is potentially contained in iron ore.

We can also use the realistic approach to interpret the definition of information by B. C. Brookes (1980) expressed with the well-known formula K(S) + ΔI = K(S + ΔS), where K is knowledge, S its structure, I is information; when knowledge interacts with information, it changes in structure. The realistic nature of the equation can be seen in that the Greek delta symbol is transferred to the other side of the equation, indicating that the structure of knowledge is enriched with the structure of information.

The following subchapter analyses the communicational approach to information by Robert Losee (1997).

7.1 Communicative Approach: Robert Losee

Robert M. Losee works at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and a master’s and a doctoral degree in information science. His professional interest centred around the communication aspect of information.

Losee (1997) begins his work with a methodological discussion of the role of the concept of information in different subject fields. His aim is to create a definition of information that would be broad enough to be applicable in all the disciplines that work with the concept of information and that would, at the same time, be accurate enough to be of use for scientific disciplines working with precisely defined concepts. In the above it can be seen that Losee does not consider the concept of information to be equivocal; thus, his view lacks the common core of many of the definitions created in varying subject fields. He aims to identify this “core”, describing it with a more general definition of information. It should be noted, though, that Losee does not deny the individual disciplines their right to a unique definition that would best suit their needs. Based on the information given above it can be assumed that Losee does not view the concept of information either as univocal, that is, as having an identical content in all the possible areas of its use, or as a genus concept that fully captures the essence of its subject. He believes that using a general definition it is possible to describe what all the possible definitions of information created in different subject fields have in common. Such a general definition could then be tailored to the needs of the individual scientific disciplines. It follows that Losee probably considers the concept of information to be either analogous or a univocal genus concept that can be refined through differences.

At the beginning of his paper, Losee tentatively defines information as “the output of a process”. In the paper he investigates the plausibility of this initial definition and attempts to refine it via other concepts.

He first discusses the common understanding of the concept of information (attempting a nominal definition), finding that the concept of information in both common and professional discourse is associated with the following characteristics:

  • information is something (energy, substance or an abstract concept);

  • it provides “new” knowledge (a repetition of previously received messages is not informative);

  • it is true (a lie or false or counterfactual information is not information);

  • it is “about something” (it has a semantic dimension in addition to the syntactic one);

Losee identifies the above characteristics in the works by selected authors and proposes his own tentative definition of information as the “values in the characteristics of the processes’ output” (Losee, 1997, p. 256). He then moves on to a factual definition of the concept of information. He starts by examining what requirements the definition should meet, concluding that it should, above all, capture the essence of the defined object and at the same time should be sufficiently precise. In other words, it should clarify both the similarities and differences between the defined concept and related concepts. The concepts related to information include meaning, certainty and knowledge.

Losee argues that the definition of information should not be too narrow (such as viewing information as an entity connected with the human mind) or too broad (Losee believes that, in line with Occam’s razor, what is not needed should be excluded from the definition). He believes that the concept of information is a fundamental concept of information science.

He proceeds to examine the concepts he used for his definition, namely process, value (characteristics) and output. As already mentioned above, Losee believes that information is always informative, that is, “about something”. He considers information to be the characteristics of the output of the process, these being informative of the process and the input. He divides processes into reversible and irreversible. For a reversible process, the value of the output and the knowledge of the process can be used to accurately reconstruct the input. This is not the case for an irreversible process. According to Losee, all processes produce information and can be accurately described, provided that sufficient resources and time are available. Therefore, it appears Losee considers some processes irreversible only due to our inability to accurately determine all the values, not irreversible from an ontological perspective.

Losee defines a process using the mathematical concept of function. A function is a process (algorithm) through which the input value is transformed into an output value. If f(x) = x + 1, then for x = 1 it holds that f(x) = 2. Every function must have a physically implemented channel, a mechanism that converts input values to output values. A function is reflective of the information transmission process. The output value of the function provides information about the function as such and its input.

Losee argues that information is neither the process, its input nor output alone. In his view, information is the output value in the context of the input and the process; that is, the value of the output insofar as it is reflective of the input and the process.

Fig. 12 The communication process by Losee (1997)

Based on this functional conception Losee creates a hierarchical model of human communication. During information transfer the knowledge is encoded in language expressions, which are then encoded in sounds. Sounds are decoded into language expressions and the process of decoding language expressions creates knowledge. The communication process is hierarchical, with the lower levels “feeding” the higher levels. Losee himself considers the hierarchical model of communication to be a generalised version of the model by Shannon.

Fig. 13 Hierarchical model of communication by Losee (1997)

In Losee’s view, encoding is understood as a function f and decoding as its inverse: f -1. If f is raised to the power of two, then f(4) = 16 and f -1(16) = 4. It holds that F -1 (f(x)) = f (f -1(x) = x. During encoding, the input value x is converted into a particular form from which the output value y is derived during decoding which equals x. The above obviously assumes functions with lossless operation (that is, no information is lost, e.g. due to information noise). The communication process may be represented by the following:

Knowledge (phrase (phoneme(phoneme-1(phrase-1(knowledge-1(x)))))))))

According to Losee, information must always be transmitted through a series of physical processes. The communication channel through which the transmission process takes place is identical to Buckland’s view of information-as-thing (Buckland, 1991).

Here, the informativeness consists in transferring the characteristics from one level to another, which determines the level of precision of the representation. For example, our visual organs provide our brain with the information that an apple is red, but we do not learn anything about its taste, which means that not all the characteristics of the object were transferred and that the representation is imperfect. This is true of most representations (they are imperfect compared to the original).

Losee divides the process of cognition into three hierarchical layers: perception, observation and understanding/belief. Perception is simple reception of information from the outside world; observation consists in active work with this received information, and belief is the attitude of the cognising subject to the object of knowledge, which is incorporated into the hierarchical structure of knowledge. Losee holds to the classical view of knowledge as a justified true belief, explicitly subscribing to the correspondence theory of truth which states that the truth of a statement is determined by the extent to which it corresponds to the world. In his view, knowledge is information that is both true and justified;

false information is still compatible with his model for it is explained as information with an information loss. From an epistemological point of view, false information can be viewed as unjustified information. A lie can, according to Losee, be seen as precise information about both the input and the process if we are familiar with all the circumstances (including, for example, the motive for the lie).

Losee’s work can be described as a typical example of a moderately realistic viewpoint. In his work, much space is devoted to epistemological discussions of the concept of information, including its definition and the requirements that it needs to meet. He first formulates a nominal definition of the concept of information and then proceeds to the factual one, carefully examining the concepts he aims to use in the definition (process, value, input, output). He understands knowledge as a more or less accurate representation of objects. The concept of information is considered to be inherently associated with the concepts of truth and justification. His model also explains misinformation as the result of an information loss that occurs during the communication process. Losee does not share the view of emergentists that there may be more information at the output of the process than at the input; he believes that the amount of output information is either identical to or lower than the amount of input information (if a loss occurred). This corresponds to the Aristotelian conception of causality. Losee does not deal with classifying information because his aim is to create an umbrella (family) concept to which every discipline can add its own differences between species.

8 Conceptualism and Moderate Subjectivism

Of the approaches in information science, cognitive approach is the closest to conceptualism. Cognitive approach views information as something that changes the internal structure of the cognising subject. However, this change is not caused by the information transferring the structure of objects; rather, the information encourages the subject to create or change its own image of the world. This image is unique to every cognising individual. Conceptualism is characterised by an exaggerated emphasis on subjectivity.

A. D. Madden defines information as a “stimulus which expands or amends the World View of the informed” (Madden, 2004, p. 9).

Allan Pratt argues that the information “is alternation of the Image which occurs when it receives a message. Information is thus an event; an event which occurs at some unique point in time and space, to some particular individual” (Pratt, 1977, p. 215).

Michael Buckland (1991) distinguishes between three meanings of information: information-as-process, information-as-knowledge and information-as-thing. Information-as-process is the action of being informed; it causes a change in the subject’s knowledge. Information-as-knowledge is the result of this change. Information-as-thing is anything that has the potential to be informative (e.g. document).

Jiří Cejpek (1998) and Peter Ingwersen (1996) use the term “potential information”. Potential information is a record of signs that becomes real information when in contact with a human mind. Jiří Cejpek places a great emphasis on the subjective character of information:

The process of subjective perception and experience of the world, referred to as information reception, must be considered a living source, a benchmark and correlate of any speculation on information, for every rational discourse has its roots in first-person experience. [...] Therefore, I believe that the core of theoretical information science is information as a psychophysiological phenomenon and process, such as human interaction with the outside world and with self. This means that information science should be anchored in information processes taking place in human consciousness. (Cejpek, 1998, pp. 139–140).

Another type of conceptualism can be seen in the existential conception of information by Michal Kaščák. Kaščák says:

When we as “creators” of information make a transition from the personal – experience, signal, “raw material” (Thompson, 1968, p. 305) – to “impersonal” (that is, to information, which is the output of this process), we find ourselves in the opposite role of information users: how do we get from the impersonal information, that is, from the “information universe”, which is now – in relation to us – the raw material, to the personally relevant knowledge (that should in this case be the ultimate “output” of our interaction with information)? (Kaščák, 2011, p. 177)

The next subchapter examines the concept of semantic information by Luciano Floridi (2011a), which is a typical example of the neo-positivistic approach.

8.1 Semantic Approach: Luciano Floridi

Luciano Floridi teaches at several European universities. He is a philosopher by education. He focuses mainly on the philosophy of information and on information ethics.

Floridi (2011a) considers information to be a multifaceted phenomenon; in his view, it is a polysemous term that can be defined in varying ways, depending on the level of abstraction. He provides an overview of the meanings of the concept of information structured in a hierarchical way.

A useful definition of information, in his view, is one based on the concept of data. Information consists of a combination of data and meaning. He formulates a general definition of information which requires that three conditions are met in order to obtain semantic information:

Fig. 14 Basic classification of information by Floridi (2011a)

  1. information consists of data;

  2. the data are properly arranged,

  3. properly arranged data is meaningful.

Because the above definition is data-based, Floridi focuses on defining the concept of data. He elaborates the general definition by suggesting that data can be understood as a lack of uniformity, that is, as difference (diaphora). Three general categories of data are distinguished: diaphora de re, de signo and de dicto. Data as diaphora de re refer to a lack of uniformity in the real world; they are “proto-epistemic”; we do not know them but can infer them from experience. They are similar to Kant’s noumenon and Locke’s substances. Data as diaphora de signo reveal a lack of uniformity in the perception of physical states. Data as diaphora de dicto show a lack of uniformity between symbols (conventional signs).

According to Floridi, data is taxonomically, typologically, ontologically and genetically neutral. Taxonomic neutrality means that there is no data “about itself”, i.e. data that would be identical only to itself and that would not be in a difference relationship to other data. Typological neutrality means that data can consist of different data types. Floridi distinguishes primary data, secondary data, metadata, operational data, and derived data.

Ontological neutrality means that no information exists that would not be represented by data; however, Floridi does not employ a materialistic interpretation of the above statement, according to which being represented means to be physically implemented.

Genetic neutrality refers to the independence of the data of who is informed, meaning that information can exist on its own, without any informed entity. However, what he has in mind is not the strong realistic thesis that information can have its own semantics without an intelligent creator.

The possibility of the existence of data independent of the observer is important for the conception of environmental information. According to Floridi, environmental information is defined by its relationship to the observer and is based on data to which the observer does not have a direct access. The existence of this data is inferred from other data that are accessible to the observer. Both types of data must be related to each other.

Floridi focuses at length on a mathematical theory of information because it is, in his view, the basis for a definition of data-based information. The core of his paper is information as semantic content. He then divides information into two categories: instructional and factual.

Instructional information is a guide on how to perform a particular activity. All the instructional information has its own semantic side – it can be meaningful and interpretable. In this way instructional information is connected with factual information, which is a description of a particular state of the world. Factual information depends on the level of abstraction, that is, on the interface between the observer and the observed. The level of abstraction determines the range and type of data for generating information.

Factual information as a description of the state of the world can be true or false. The question is whether false information is factual information. Floridi advocates the concept of factual semantic information as “properly organised, meaningful and true data”.

If properly organised, meaningful data is false, it can be either misinformation (if the falsehood is unintentional), or disinformation (if the deception is intentional).

Floridi, however, does not uphold the correspondence theory of truth. Knowledge is not considered to be a representation of the world; rather, it is a data-based construct. This construct is not arbitrary, though, because it is limited by the data from which it is generated.

Floridi focuses on the philosophical approaches to semantic information, claiming that some are heavily dependent on the mathematical theory of information while others only mildly. The common link between all of the approaches and the mathematical theory of information is the model of communication by Shannon and the inverse relationship principle, according to which the amount of information is inversely proportional to the probability of occurrence of that information. In other words, the less probable a symbol, the greater informativeness it displays. For the above reason, some authors consider tautology (a statement that is true in every possible interpretation) to be a statement that carries zero information content because the probability that it is true equals one. This, however, leads to the paradoxical situation of a contradiction, for which the probability that it is true equals zero, carrying the greatest informative content. Here, the conception of weakly semantic information is used for which the truthfulness or falsehood of a statement is irrelevant. A possible solution to this paradox is provided by the theory of strongly semantic information, according to which the statements that are internally contradictory have zero information value. This is based on the conception of semantic information as properly organised, meaningful and true data, with tautologies and contradictions having zero information value. The most informative are those statements that are correct, accurate and randomly (i.e., not necessarily) true. Such information is the closest to the real state of the world (tautologies and contradictions are the farthest from it). Between the two extremes there are a number of statements whose informativeness is greater than 0 and but less than 1, depending on the completeness and accuracy of the data with respect to a particular state of the world. The varying degrees of informativeness are shown in the graph below.

Fig. 15 Degrees of informativeness according to Floridi (2011a)

Floridi’s approach described in his paper is a classic example of a neo-positivistic approach combined with some of the modern analytical philosophy approaches. This philosophy places great emphasis on the precision of expression (sometimes even technical) way of expression; also, it defines concepts using sufficient and necessary conditions and pays attention to distinguishing subtle differences between concepts. For the above reason the works by modern analytical philosophers may seem extremely objectivistic. However, this is not true. Modern analytical philosophy considers concepts but epistemological aids that more or less elegantly serve the purposes of a particular theory; they are not concerned with the concepts’ relation to reality (neo-positivism considers definitions and classifications to be instruments for the classification of facts but it does not view them as corresponding to reality). The works by modern analytical philosophers are reflective of the structure of the researcher’s abstraction rather than of the structure of reality.

Floridi explicitly subscribes to conceptualism in several places of his work; he does so, for example, when describing data as diaphora de re, which are inaccessible to our cognition and are similar to Kant’s noumenon. An open profession of realism can be seen in Floridi’s conception of knowledge as a data-based construct and in his rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. Therefore, when Floridi mentions truthfulness as a necessary condition for the existence of semantic information, he has quite a different type of truthfulness in mind than, for example, Losee, who understands truthfulness in the sense of realism.

9 Nominalism and Extreme Subjectivism

When investigating the concept of information, nominalism and extreme subjectivism delve into the etymological and historical contexts of the use of the word information. These approaches consider concepts to be social constructs created to serve particular purposes. They distinguish themselves from the correspondence theory of truth and in the most extreme cases reject the practice of defining and classifying concepts altogether.

Rafael Capurro and Birger Hjørland (2003) consider definitions to be more or less useful for the purposes of a given theory (rather than “true”). They focus at length on the etymological contexts of the word information, investigating the varying ways in which the term is defined by different authors. The conception of information as such is only covered in a short chapter concluding that it is important to distinguish between information as an objective thing and information as a subjective concept. The latter conception of information is always associated with interpretation of meaning that depends on the social context (Capurro and Hjørland, 2003, pp. 396–397).

According to Ian Cornelius, “information is properly seen not as an objective independent entity as part of a ‘real world’, but that it is a human artefact, constructed and reconstructed within social situations” (Cornelius, 1996, p. 19).

Jonathan Furner (2004) considers information to be a concept that does not relate to epistemology but to the philosophy of language, i.e. the physical tool of communication.

Berndt Frohmann (2004) believes that the attention of information scientists should be directed to documents, which again stresses the importance of physical instruments of communication rather than of information as an immaterial entity.

According to Ronald Day (2001), information is a social construct that serves to promote the utopian vision of society and is a tool of totalitarian power.

In the next subchapter, a paper by Joseph Goguen's (1997) attempting a social and ethical definition of information will be analysed.

9.1 Social Approach Joseph Goguen

Joseph Goguen (died in 2006) was a mathematician by education. He was a professor of computer science at the University of Carolina. He was concerned with software engineering, fuzzy logic, algebraic semantics and semiotics, user interface design and with social and ethical aspects of information technologies.

Goguen (1997) develops his conception of information in the context of the design of an information system. In the introduction to his work he notes that there is no theory or definition of information that would meaningfully reflect the fact that we live in the Information Age. In the creation of his own definition he takes into account the social context in which information systems are created and used, intending to base his definition on sociology, logics and semiotics. He argues that in this sense his definition is postmodern. According to Goguen, a definition of information should meet the following criteria:

  1. it should be applicable on the ways in which information systems are understood as well as designed;

  2. it should address the importance that users attach to events;

  3. it should address ethical issues;

  4. it should take into account the fact that individuals and social groups construct meanings in different ways; to achieve this, the theory should have a strong empirical basis formulated as follows:

    1. no pre-prepared categories can be brought into empirical research; and

    2. the researcher must obtain “hard data” such as video recordings.

Goguen believes that it is necessary to create a ‘social’ information theory rather than a statistical or a representational one. He also argues that an information theory cannot be objectivistic or realistic in terms of a distinction between the subject and the object and the assumption of an objective real world. Therefore, it cannot be based on traditional semiotics, according to which signs refer to real things, but on social semiotics.

Goguen considers it necessary to distinguish between a member of a group or a group that is a potential user of an information system, and between an analyst or designer (individual or group) who analyses or designs the system. In addition, it is necessary to be aware of the difference between the object level, on the basis of which formalisation is created, and the “meta-level” represented by the language used to express that formalisation. The object level models the world of the members of the user group; the meta-level is the language of the analyst.

Goguen proposes the following tentative definition of information: “A unit of information is an interpretation of a configuration of signs for which members of a particular social group are responsible.” Thus, information is seen as identical to the socially constructed meaning of signs. Therefore, meaning is seen as relative to the group among which it is created. He draws a distinction between “dry” and “wet” information based on the extent to which the interpretation is dependent on the context (dry is less dependent). Formalisation is seen as the efforts to make information “drier”, that is, less dependent on the situation. In addition, formalisation makes it possible to explicitly express so-called tacit knowledge, i.e. knowledge that is used without being communicated verbally. Formalisation is successful if it displays immutable mobility, which is a sociological term denoting a type of representation whose interpretation remains immutable in different contexts.

According to Goguen, information has the following characteristics:

  • it is situated (it can only be understood in relation to a particular situation);

  • it is localised (interpretation is constructed in a particular context);

  • it is emergent (it can only be understood at the level of a group of individuals, not at the level of the individual);

  • it is random (interpretation is the result of a particular situation in which the interpretations of previous events may be included);

  • it is embodied (i.e. represented in a tangible manner, which may have a decisive impact on the interpretation);

  • it is vague (only the information that is needed for the task at hand is expressed);

  • it is open-ended (it can never have a definite form for it must remain open for revisions);

According to Goguen, interpretation can be relatively stable and context-independent only when events are explained post hoc (retrospective hypothesis).

In the next section of his work, Goguen focuses on the ways in which the information (that has previously been defined) can be obtained, examining some of the methods used in humanities and in social sciences. The methods include introspection, questionnaire, interview, group-focused method and protocol analysis. Goguen concludes that although the methods may be useful, they take little account of the social nature of knowledge. This disadvantage may be overcome by employing ethnomethodology, a method that responds to the traditional objectivistic approach in sociology and examines how social order is produced in and through the processes of social interaction. An ethnomethodologist must get as close as possible to the studied group to be able to understand the system of its values. Ethnomethodological semiotics examines how the meaning of signs is created in group interaction. According to Goguen, ethnomethodology should be the basis for the social theory of information. In his view, the main limitations of ethnomethodology consist in the following:

  • it requires data obtained by observing interactions in normal situations that are not disturbed by observation (this is not easy to achieve);

  • it requires the analyst to understand the concepts and methods of each member of the group, which can only be achieved to a certain extent;

  • it requires that the observations be done under certain conditions in which interactions take place (but the design of the technical equipment requires the use of abstraction and formalisation); and

  • it is effortful and time-consuming.

According to Goguen, ethnomethodology makes it possible to study the results of interactions between the members of a group that are shared by these members.

In addition, he focuses on discourse analysis. In his view, the main features of a discourse are definable boundaries, which he considers to be social, and an accurate internal structure. Discourse contains narrative presuppositions that are related to the chronological order of events in the text, and evaluation explaining the events through the system of shared values. Goguen believes that discourse analysis does not reveal the truth hidden in a text; rather, it explains how the text is related to its context. Discourse analysis combined with other methods can be used for a case study examining the value system of a group.

Goguen’s work falls into the category of extreme scepticism particularly because he rejects the correspondence theory of truth and considers knowledge to be a social construct relative to a particular community. In addition, he can be considered an extreme subjectivist on account of rejecting the distinction between the epistemological terms of object and subject and viewing knowledge as created by a collective subject. His connection to nominalism consists primarily in the belief that the relationship between signs and the entities they refer to is purely arbitrary and depends on social convention (ethnomethodological semiotics). However, his scepticism, subjectivism and nominalism are not absolute because he believes that there are exact methods of “drying out” information through which information can be made less dependent on the social context. As regards information definition, he does not avoid it completely but employs a rather lax approach, providing a somewhat vague definition of an information unit instead of defining information per se. He provides a quite narrow definition of information as the interpretation of signs. It is clear that the above definition cannot become universal; it was created for the purposes of information system designers. The distinction between “dry” and “wet” information is based on the degree of dependence on the context.

10 Summary

The subject of our analysis were texts by four selected authors: Marcia J. Bates, Robert Losee, Luciano Floridi and Joseph Goguen. The texts were selected as typical representatives of all the approaches to the understanding of concepts described in the theoretical part of the paper: extreme and moderate realism (associated with epistemological realism and objectivism) as well as conceptualism and nominalism (associated with epistemological scepticism and subjectivism). The selected authors’ approaches to our questions of interest can be classified using the following table:


Epistemological and Methodological Bases

Approach to Concepts

Approach to Definitions and Classifications

Definition of Information

Classification of Information

Marcia J. Bates

Realism and objectivism, evolutionary approach

Extremely realistic


Pattern of organisation

Natural information is divided into information related to living systems and that related to non-living systems. Information associated with living systems is referred to as represented and it can be genetic, neural-cultural or exosomatic; another classification divides information into Information 1 and Information 2

Robert Losee

Realism and objectivism, communicative approach

Moderately Realistic


Information is the characteristics of the output of the process, these being informative of the process and the input.

No classification is done; according to Losee, classification should be left to the individual disciplines dealing with the concept of information.

Luciano Floridi

Moderate scepticism and subjectivism, neo-positivism



Information consists of properly arranged data; factual information =

properly arranged, meaningful and true data

Information is either environmental or semantic; semantic information can be divided into two categories: instructional and factual.

Joseph Goguen

Extreme scepticism and collective subjectivism, ethnomethodology, discourse analysis



A unit of information is an interpretation of a configuration of signs for which members of a particular social group are responsible.

Information is divided into “wet” and “dry” based on context-dependency.

Table 3 Definition and classification of information in the works by selected authors

There is no consensus, among either the analysed authors or those that were mentioned only marginally, on the genus concepts and the difference concepts used in the authors’ definitions. The above fact can be explained in two ways, depending on which epistemological view we decide to take.

As sceptics, we would say that information is an equivocal term (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, pp. 74–75) which has different meanings in different contexts, i.e. that it is a term denoting different concepts. In this case, the meaning of the term “information” is relative to the context in which it is used.

As representatives of realism, we could say that the difficulties associated with defining the concept of information are caused by the transcendental nature of this concept. A transcendental concept (Novák and Dvořák, 2007, p. 66) is a concept that is in a way related to everything that exists. Such a concept is very difficult to define since it is impossible to find the nearest genus or suitable difference. Therefore, transcendental concepts can only be defined verbally with the use of an analogy. In view of the above it is not surprising that different authors use different words to define information. Nevertheless, a certain similarity of the definitions could be noticed. For example, both Bates’ “pattern of organisation” and Floridi’s “properly organised data” refer to the concept of order. Losee's “values in the characteristics of the processes’ output”, Floridi’s “meaningful data” and Goguen’s “interpretation unit” emphasise the fact that information is “about something”, i.e. that it has a semantic dimension.

The same is true for classifications. It can be noticed that both Bates and Floridi make a basic distinction between information as a structure and information that has meaning. The former is called Information 1 by Bates and environmental information by Floridi; the latter Bates refers to as Information 2 and Floridi as semantic information. Losee does not classify information at all; Goguen only distinguishes between “wet” and “dry” information. The lack of classification is probably due to the fact that the two authors only deal with information as en entity that has meaning, disregarding information as a structure.

It can therefore be concluded that the problem with defining and classifying information is due to the very nature of this concept, which allows only nominal definitions. Thus, the fact that no general definition of information has been adopted by information science can be ascribed to the enormous scope of the concept rather than to insufficient efforts of information scientists. It does not appear advisable to extend the current number of nominal definitions of the concept of information; instead, information science should consider whether it really needs such a broad concept.

11 Conclusion

The paper focused on the definition and classification of the concept of information in terms of epistemology and methodology. First, the concepts of epistemology, methodology, method and methodics were defined and the influence of epistemology and methodology on the various approaches in information science were investigated. Second, two basic epistemological questions were formulated and a distinction between realism, scepticism, objectivism and subjectivism was drawn based on the answers to these questions. We investigated their relation to methodology and provided a selection of examples of the above approaches from the field of information science.

We defined the term “concept” and differentiated between four basic conceptions of concepts: extreme realism, moderate realism, conceptualism and nominalism, and provided a selection of examples of these concepts that can be found in information science.

Furthermore, we investigated the concepts of definition and classification and established three different approaches to defining and classifying concepts: realism, instrumentalism and definition-rejecting approach.

In the next part of our work, texts by four authors (Bates, Losee, Floridi and Goguen) were analysed who are typical representatives of the above approaches to epistemological and methodological questions.

We came to the conclusion that information is a transcendental concept that can only be defined verbally and therefore, its further use in information science should be subject to consideration. For the purposes of information science, the concept of information can either be narrowed down3 or replaced with another concept, for example, with that of document, as suggested e.g. by Frohmann (2004).


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1 The paper is a substantially extended version of a paper entitled “Pojem informace jako epistemologický a metodologický problém” (The Concept of Information as an Epistemological and Methodological Problem) published in 2013 in Knižničná a informačná veda XXIV (Library and Information Science XXIV). The analyses described in the present paper were published in an altered form in a book entitled “Filosofie informace – metateoretická analýza pojmu informace a hlavních paradigmat informační vědy” (Brno, 2015) (Philosophy of Information – Metatheoretical Analysis of the Concept of Information and the Main Paradigms of Information Science). Nevertheless, the present paper in its entirety is a new contribution to the discussion of the concept of information.

2 The terminology comes from Aristotelian philosophy.

3 Bawden and Robinson (2013) believe that the most successful attempt in this respect is Floridi’s definition of semantic information analysed above. However, the concept is a philosophical one and thus it is too broad for the purposes of information science.

Dec 19, 2020
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