Skip to main content

Seventeenth century object design

Posted by ljnelson on September 2, 2004 at 8:10 AM PDT

Hello, first of all. It's an honor to be part of the weblogging community.

A discussion concerning component
brought me back to my philosophy major days in college. Who knew
British empiricism could help you with object design?

The discussion was (is) about, loosely, how best to design an object or a
component for reuse. You want to get the hypothetical object down to what's
important across domains, to trim away the fat, but, as a competing concern, to
make it rich enough that people won't have to reinvent the wheel. Slimming down
your object also provides incentive for someone else to use it, provided you
don't slim it down so far that it's impractical.

What is this "fat" we're talking about? In general, it's concerns or aspects
or facets of the real-world thing that our object is modeling. There are many
facets about a hypothetical and reusable Person object (and the set
of all persons that it models), for example, that could be included, ranging
from names to measurements to relationships with others. Which of these groups
of attributes is necessary for a Person to be a
Person? Which is superfluous? What is the Person
apart from these groups of attributes?

John Locke examined
these issues in href="">An Essay
Concerning Human Understanding
. Ruthlessly paraphrased, and butchered
somewhat for this weblog's purposes, he argues that when you hear someone
mention a person, you frame a "complication or collection" of "simple ideas" in
your mind that "go constantly together", such as height, weight, general shape,
etc. In Locke's view we humans in the normal unexamined course of our lives
don't imagine these ideas simply existing on their own, so we subconsciously
posit the existence of a "substratum" that they bind to, although strictly
speaking we never entirely know what we're talking about. Locke calls this
substratum substance, and, believe it or not, it's one way of thinking
about object reuse, whether it exists or not.

A couple of choice quotes from Locke on this whole subject:

If any one should be asked, what is the subject wherein colour or
weight inheres, he would have nothing to say, but the solid extended parts; and
if he were demanded, what is it that solidity and extension adhere in, he
would... [answer] SOMETHING, HE KNEW NOT WHAT.

...[O]ur...ideas of substances...have always the confused idea of
something to which they belong...and therefore when we speak of any sort of
substance, we say it is a thing having such or such qualities; as body is a
thing that is extended, figured, and capable of motion; spirit, a thing capable
of thinking; and so hardness, friability, and power to draw iron, we say, are
qualities to be found in a loadstone. These...intimate that the substance is
supposed always SOMETHING BESIDES the extension, figure, solidity, motion,
thinking, or other observable ideas, though we know not what it

Let's apply Locke to object design and see where it leads. Suppose he's
right: a person is simply a collection of related attributes or facets that
adhere to some substratum. Let's model this explicitly.

Backing up for a second for contrast, the normal way you would design a
domain-independent Person object, assuming for the moment you
could, would be to pick some attributes that you thought were sufficiently
general and important to be included in this superclass (and here's where you
run into problems). Here, for the sake of brevity, is my silly offering:

public class Person {
  // My selection for an attribute that is important enough to
  // be included in this reusable class.  Yours could be different.
  // Of course that means we'll probably end up not reusing each other's
  // classes.  Hmm.
  private String name;

  public Person() {

  public String getName() {

  public void setName(final String name) { = name;

  // etc.


Of course, picking what those attributes are is what makes reusable object
design so tough.

Locke, if he were an object designer, would be a rebel. He would probably
start with the attributes--the collections of simple ideas--and graft them on to
some simple "substance" object that would be deliberately designed to be more or
less inscrutable. As it turns out, this is a much better way to achieve object
reuse across domains. Maybe an extreme version of his code would look something
like this:

public interface IKnowNotWhat {
  // If only we knew what it was!

public class Person implements IKnowNotWhat {

  public Person() {


public abstract class CollectionOfSimpleIdeas {
  protected final IKnowNotWhat substance;

  public CollectionOfSimpleIdeas(final IKnowNotWhat substance) {
    this.substance = substance;
    if (substance == null) {
      throw new BritishEmpiricismMisunderstoodException();

  public IKnowNotWhat getSubstance() {
    return substance;


public class PersonNames extends CollectionOfSimpleIdeas {
  private String familiarName;

  public PersonNames(final IKnowNotWhat substance) {

  public String getFamiliarName() {
    return this.familiarName;

  public void setFamiliarName(final String familiarName) {
    this.familiarName = familiarName;

  // etc.


public class PersonMeasurements extends CollectionOfSimpleIdeas {
  private int heightInInches;

  public PersonMeasurements(final IKnowNotWhat substance) {

  public int getHeight() {
    return this.heightInInches;

  public void setHeight(final int height) {
    this.heightInInches = height;

  // etc.


The key insight here is that people aren't interested in a reusable
Person object at all. They are interested in different
combinations of facets that all concern a person in a particular domain.
A financial services programmer doesn't care about a person's weight, but that
might be very important to the programmer of an insurance system. Explicitly
modeling a person this way--inside out--lets each domain of attributes stand
alone, but also lets them play nicely together when bound together. What's
important is that the attributes are reused, not the substratum.

All of this philosophy has made my brain hurt. I'm going to go get some
lunch (although I know not what).

Related Topics >>