Defining Context

08Oct12

Context, such as the community you live in, or the school you attend, or the family you’re a member of, in some ways defines you as a person and in some ways determines what you do as a person.

Every thing – object, structure, process, or event – is associated with one, or more contexts that define, frame, and determine it.  Context also sets the constraints and parameters for a things motion and development.  Since a thing may belong to multiple contexts it is defined, framed, determined, constrained and its parameters are set separately within each of those contexts.  A single thing may exist in a different way for each of its different contexts.  Further many things exist in contradictory ways even withing the same context.

Things have no meaning without being considered as a part, within, or seen from the perspective of one or another context.  Fortunately things don’t just exist in time in space, we always view and set them in one context or another. We shouldn’t place things arbitrarily in a context.  Things should be placed in one more context in a way that helps to achieve our ends for using the thing.  Those ends may be technical, physical scientific, social scientific, ethical or even aesthetic.

Context sets the terms and vocabulary used to refer to a thing and things tied together as a state of affairs.  Context sets what questions or issues are relevant when considering a thing or state of affairs.

A context has various dimensions and they all affect how we understand the history, motion, development and future of some particular thing.  Bertell Ollman in the book “Dance of the Dialectic” identifies 3 concepts to apply when performing abstraction.  Abstraction is a common, but all important analytical method of ignoring the details of a state of affairs to focus on its essential points.  The 3 concepts are 1) extension (what’s included in what’s being thought about), 2) level of generality (how abstract or detailed the analysis should be) and 3) vantage point (the angle from which the analysis is being carried out).  When Ollman mentions context it is secondary to abstraction, but I think he has reversed the proper order.

While I agree with Ollman that the 3 concepts should be applied to abstraction, I think that in the analysis of a thing, the concepts should first be applied to defining one or more contexts for the thing and then secondarily based upon that, we should apply the 3 concepts to how we abstract the thing.  After you decide why you are going to analyze something, you should first apply the 3 concepts to specify what context you will use in further analysis of the thing.  After these are done, proper abstraction that focuses on what is really essential to the initial interest and its actual context is possible.

Extension, level of generality and vantage point are always applied together, but they are 3 different dimensions in the process of both determining context and then how it will be abstracted.

~ Tanner Phillips @philosophyofsci

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