Archive for November 2nd, 2013

Is Computer Science a discipline?   no comments

Posted at 5:29 pm in Uncategorized

When looking into the field of Computer Science, there seem to be many different views on the definition of the discipline. Some authors simply state a definition of the field, others say there is not one coherent definition, and some even argue that Computer Science cannot be considered as proper science. This week I will show some of these different views and herewith try to get an initial understanding of the field of Computer Science.

I will start with considering an author that has written a book to give (Computer Science) students “an overview of what Computer Science is”. Brookshear gives a definition of the discipline in the first line of his book:

“Computer Science is the discipline that seeks to build a scientific foundation for such topics as computer design, computer programming, information processing, algorithmic solutions of problems, and the algorithmic process itself”

(Brookshear, 2012: p. 16)

This definition seems a bit difficult to grasp, because Brookshear explains the field by giving examples of topics that it seeks to build a scientific foundation for. Still, an individual without previous technical knowledge does not necessarily understand what these topics encompass. Tedre says: “it is impossible to characterize the whole academic field of computing by making a list of topics with which all researchers would unanimously agree”. Tedre therefore argues that Brookshear’s definition has little “informational value” (Tedre, 2006: p. 349).

Tedre does not give his own definition of Computer Science, but explains that there have been many debates in the past about what Computer Science is about or should become. He adds that there are still is no complete consensus on the identity of Computer Science these days. The discipline has been diversifying radically since the rise of electronic digital computing, Tedre argues (Tedre, 2006: p. 161-162). This fact may also contribute to the inability in the scholarly world to come to a consensus about a solid definition for the field.

Tedre demonstrates this inability for example by the different opinions of Brooks and Hartmanis. Brooks argued in 1996 that Computer Science is a synthetic, engineering discipline. According to him, “anything which has to call itself a science, isn’t”. Also, he argues that computers are being seen more as tools and not as proper ends. This is led by “the emergence of new topic areas between computer science and many other disciplines” (Brooks in Tedre, 2006: p. 341-342). Hartmanis also thinks that Computer Science differs from other sciences, but he argues that it “is laying the foundations and developing the research paradigms and scientific methods for the exploration of the world of information and intellectual processes that are not directly governed by physical laws” (Hartmanis in Tedre, 2006: p. 346).  Tedre also quotes Minsky, whom in 1979 argued that Computer Science is hard to see as thing in itself, because it has so many relationships with other disciplines (Minsky in Tedre, 2006: p. 347).

Next to authors who simply state definitions of Computer Science or deny that it can be seen as a discipline, some authors explain why Computer Science can be seen as a discipline. The example that I pick here is coming from Dodig-Crnkovic. She argues that Computer Science is based on Logic and Mathematics. Herewith, she argues that there is one important difference, which qualifies Computer Science as a discipline just as well as the previously mentioned ones:

“The important difference is that the computer (the physical object that is directly related to the theory) is not a focus of investigation (not even in the sense of being the cause of certain algorithm proceeding in certain way) but it is rather theory materialized, a tool always capable of changing in order to accommodate even more powerful theoretical concepts.”

 (Dodig-Crnkovic, 2002: p. 7)

According to Dodig-Crnkovic Computer Science thus never has to reach an impasse, because of the ever evolving technology. Herewith, it can be considered as a scientific discipline.

Whereas I now looked at the different ways to define Computer Science, I will look into the different approaches in Computer Science next week.


Brookshear, J. Glenn. Computer Science. An Overview. Eleventh Edition. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2012.

Dodig-Crnkovic, Gordana. Scientific Methods in Computer Science. Mälardalen University, 2002.

Tedre, Matti. The Development of Computer Science. A Sociocultural Perspective. University of Joensuu, 2006.


Written by Gert Van Hardeveld on November 2nd, 2013

Tagged with