Context, Context, Context

The Contextual Theory of Knowledge is one of the broadest ideas in Objectivism. It basically says that all of our knowledge exists in a context. Context is the background in which something is said. There's a huge amount of background information you assume in every statements, and all of that information is then connected to more information. When you identify something, you identify it within a given context.

Imagine you're going to write some simple idea down. Maybe it's something like "It's okay to kill in self-defense." It's something you all understand, but how much of the context can you identify? For instance, I'm talking about killing other human beings, not animals or plants. It could be true for those as well, but it's not what I'm talking about. Also, when I say "it's okay", that means that it's morally and legally okay. You have the concept "life" in there, which you need to understand what death means. You have self-defense, which implies there are other ways you can kill someone, and you have to know what the other ways are in order to distinguish this one. Also, by the phrasing, I'm implying it's some universal rule or principle, not just applicable to one person. What about other things? Self-defense assumes that you can die yourself, so killing to prevent it is okay. Legally allowing something means there's a government, a set of predetermined laws, and that it matters. And you can go on and on with this all night if you want.

We've already seen one reason why this is true. When we form concepts, we don't form them in a vacuum. It requires noticing similarities between things with a background of different things. Every concept is formed in a context. You identify them in relation to other knowledge. And the relationships don't go away. The concept blue continues to be identified as different from red and yellow. In fact, the more information you have, the more relationships you identify. Blue becomes differentiated from green, purple, orange, and every other color.

Let's look at it another way. You've probably heard the phrase "The quote was taken out of context". What it means is that they took some isolated set of words from someone, and construed it to mean one thing when it was meant entirely different. It's a fallacy, and people often look at the original text/speech in order to see what the context was exactly.

The point in that example is different from the fact that concepts are all relational. What it says is that a statement is not meant to stand on its own. It's meant to be viewed in a context. Imagine trying to write a book where you're not allowed to use more than one sentence. If you use more than one sentence to convey an idea, each sentence could be viewed in isolation. You wouldn't be able to build off of previous ideas. Think about what that would mean. If every time you had to state something, you had to be explicit about every assumption, how complex could your ideas be?

Here's a broad example of how a context-dropper, someone who ignore the context in which a statement is made, can misunderstand you. When we define terms, it's usually in order to make sure everyone is on the same wavelength. It's to make sure we know which concept we're referring to. But if someone isn't familiar with a concept, you might have to explain it in a bit of detail. You would give lots of examples, and try to refine the description. You would say a lot of things about it. If someone decided to latch on any one sentence you pick as a description, and assume it to be a definition, they would misunderstand everything. Say I'm trying to explain what a concept is. I say it's a mental abstraction. That's not the definition, though. I'm starting with the genus, and working towards a fuller description. But a context dropper could point to that and say "It's a mental abstraction".

Context-dropping is a particularly annoying fallacy. It's a simple way to take someone else's statement and twist it into something entirely different. No statement is made outside of some context, and they can always change the context in which it was made. This is a mistake similar to equivocation. Equivocation is when you use the same word for more than one concept, and then you switch back and forth between the concepts. I identified one equivocation in my Marriage article, where people use it to mean the legal status as well as a kind of super positive relationship. And then they go on to attribute qualities of one concept to another. If marriage is a good relationship that makes you happy, everyone should be forced to get the legal status. This is similar to context dropping because the meaning behind the words are not kept in focus, and instead the words themselves are. In context-dropping, you take the words as if they were some kind of absolute truth that is devoid of context, when it never is. Equivocation does the same by attributing qualities to the word, and not the concepts, and then when the concept changes, pretending it applies to them too. As if the words magically held on to meaning outside of what they're referring to.

Okay, so context-dropping is bad. Context-keeping is good? Yes. One example I want to give is Rand's history of criticizing the United States. She did a lot of it, for a lot of very good reasons. But Rand always made sure she kept her context clear. The US is the best, most freest country on the planet. You can criticize every mistake it makes, but keep the context. It is not a police state. It is not the most vile country on the planet. Keep the context clear.

If you say that something is good within a context, make sure you keep the context clear. Don't say think that because you evaluated it as positive under certain conditions that it is positive all the time. Evaluations happen within a context. Identify the context, and don't move outside of it.

Context will come up more in the future, but hopefully this is a good start. You should walk away knowing that all knowledge is contextual, and that keeping the context is a necessary requirement for keeping the knowledge valid.

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