Influential philosophers of source code

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Who is the most important/influential philosopher of source code? Source code, as far as I know, is not a subject that philosophers claim to be studying; but, the study of logic, language and the mind is the study of source code.

For many, Ludwig Wittgenstein would probably be the philosopher that springs to mind. Wittgenstein became famous as the world’s first Perl programmer, with statements such as: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” and “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Noam Chomsky, a linguist, might be another choice, based on his specification of the Chomsky hierarchy (which neatly categorizes grammars). But generative grammars (for which he is famous in linguistics) is about generating language, not understanding what has been said/written.

My choice for the most important/influential philosopher of source code is Paul Grice. A name, I suspect, that is new to most readers. The book to quote (and to read if you enjoy the kind of books philosophers write) is “Studies in the Way of Words”.

Grice’s maxims, provide a powerful model for human communication; the tldr:

  • Maxim of quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true.
  • Maxim of quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required.
  • Maxim of relation: Be relevant.

But source code is about human/computer communication, you say. Yes, but so many developers seem to behave as-if they were involved in human/human communication.

Source code rarely expresses what the developer means; source code is evidence of what the developer means.

The source code chapter of my empirical software engineering book is Gricean, with a Relevance theory accent.

More easily digestible books on Grice’s work (for me at least) are: “Relevance: Communication and Cognition” by Sperber and Wilson, and the more recent “Meaning and Relevance” by Wilson and Sperber.