The title says it all, really.

For a Philosophy essay, I would like to describe scope, in its programming sense of being:

  • Nestable: you can have a scope within a scope
  • Hierarchical: a child scope knows everything something outside the scope knows, but not vice-versa necessarily
  • Carries information, beyond just a 'point-of-view' or 'frame of reference' - the scope is the information, as far as the observer is considered (sort of a physics-y relativity sense)

As aforementioned, I've thought of a few common idioms, but none of them reflect what I'm looking for: when I've tried to use 'scope' or any of the above examples while trying to explain my concepts to someone, they either misunderstood or simply did not get what I was trying to say: this is where I started to suspect that my usage of the word 'scope', as I first learned it and have always used it - in the programming sense - does not really translate to the lay-person usage, since 'scope' also has quite different meanings, most typically:

the extent of the area or subject matter that something deals with or to which it is relevant.

"we widened the scope of our investigation"

That's why I'm looking for an alternative to this otherwise perfect word, but one which doesn't have alternative meanings, and is unambiguous to non-programmers. I'm fine with using obscure words/terminology, I just want something that doesn't have conflating meanings I need to separate. (idioms/figures of speech, like those mentioned, are also fine)

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    Scope is a pretty complicated concept in programming, and many programmers don't even understand it well. I think you have your work cut out for you if you're trying to explain it to non-programmers.
    – Barmar
    Nov 4, 2019 at 22:41
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    The concept -- and the term -- scope are common in logic and semantics with approximately the same meaning as the programming term. Linguistic and logical operators (negation, quantification, modality) all have scopes -- or all create "fields" (to change the metaphor a bit) -- that have semantic and syntactic consequences, which in turn show where the boundaries of their "scope" lie. Nov 4, 2019 at 22:42
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    @Lambie: that's why sentences with more than one operator are inevitably ambiguous, because the scopes get bent out of shape. I like the magnetic field metaphor better than scope, as far as translatability goes. Nov 4, 2019 at 22:54
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    The point is that they don't nest nicely in real language. It's only in stick-figure animations like logic or code that scopes can do that. Scopes are useful for defining information inheritance, but humans use presuppositions for that, and they're full of strange loops that mess things up. Nov 4, 2019 at 23:17
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    "Hierarchical: a parent scope knows everything something inside the scope knows, but not vice-versa necessarily" - You have that backwards, at least as far as all the programming languages I know work. If scope X contains scope Y which contains scope Z then Z will have access to the information in X and Y, but X will not have access to the info in Y and Z.
    – nnnnnn
    Nov 5, 2019 at 6:00

3 Answers 3


One possibility is layer. This has been used successfully in the OSI model: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/OSI_model

The advantage of drawing from the literature on OSI is that you avoid the term know, which is only relevant to human beings and other sentient creatures. In OSI, as in any formalized model in computing or communication, there are states, messages, rules and protocols, which can be observed externally. Components don’t “know” about each other. They merely execute their programs, i.e. they follow the rules that govern their operation.

The association of a component with a given layer provides information to the observer, who can reason about the component’s potential operation without having to know the details of its specific operation.

The observer’s knowledge of a component at one layer can provide knowledge of the adjacent layers, but not beyond. However, one could easily imagine a protocol whereby a component reports its set of states, rules, etc. to a component in a higher layer.

If layers seem overly hierarchical, there are also rings and shells. However, the key idea is that the “knowing” takes place outside the system.

Broadly speaking, if you can make a clear distinction between the “knower” and the “known”, I think that your problem will solve itself.


"Jurisdiction" , although relating specifically to the law, comes close conceptually to scope. In computer language terms scope defines the context within which a variable is valid. Outside the scope the variable may be undefined or have a different meaning.

In law, jurisdiction defines the context within which a body has authority. Outside the jurisdiction the body has no authority, for example a parking inspector from Nairobi can't fine a library user in New York for late returns.

The two terms are metaphorically similar, although they come from different practises.


In philosophy this is a

frame of reference

look it up.

The Frame Problem

To most AI researchers, the frame problem is the challenge of representing the effects of action in logic without having to represent explicitly a large number of intuitively obvious non-effects. But to many philosophers, the AI researchers' frame problem is suggestive of wider epistemological issues. Is it possible, in principle, to limit the scope of the reasoning required to derive the consequences of an action? And, more generally, how do we account for our apparent ability to make decisions on the basis only of what is relevant to an ongoing situation without having explicitly to consider all that is not relevant? […]


The Unity of Science

Kant’s ideas set the frame of reference for discussions of the unification of the sciences in German […]


It's becoming nonsensical pretty quickly so I'm not going to look any further than that

Eternity in Christian Thought

and all spatial things share a frame of reference, the reference frame of eternity, in which nothing changes...some observer, A, in the unique eternal reference frame, x and y are both present—that is, either x is eternally...respect to some A in the unique eternal reference frame, x and y are both present—i.e., (a) x is in the [...]


Generally "frame of reference" is well known from Minkowski's contributions to general relativity: https://plato.stanford.edu/search/r?entry=/entries/spacetime-iframes/&page=1&total_hits=335&pagesize=10&archive=None&rank=1&query=frame

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    "Look it up" is rude. Please fix this to be an actual answer.
    – tchrist
    Nov 5, 2019 at 4:20

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