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Context

CONTEXT.

Like "text," the word "context" is a metaphor derived from the Latin texere, "to weave." In the fourth century c.e. the Latin noun contextio described the text surrounding a given passage. In the Middle Ages, contextio came to mean "literary composition," but an interest in what we call "context," especially in biblical exegesis, was expressed through the term circumstantiae. In the ninth century, Sedulius Scotus enunciated the rule of "seven circumstances"person, fact, cause, time, place, mode, and topic.

Texts in Context

It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in Italian, French, English, and German, that the term "context" (contesto, contexture, Kontext ) began to be used with frequency. From the sentences before and after the passage to be interpreted, "context" came to refer to the coherence of a text, the relation of the parts and the whole. The term was also extended to include the intention (scopus ) of the writer.

"Circumstances" remained a key term. Jurists discussed circumstantial evidence. Moralists studied "cases of conscience," the ethical equivalent of case law. Interpretations of the Bible invoked the need to take circumstances into consideration. The sixteenth-century Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini offers an example of contextual thinking in early modern style. Guicciardini's Considerations on the Discourses of his friend Niccolò Machiavelli criticized the generalizations because they were "advanced too absolutely" (posto troppo assolutamente ), since human affairs "differ according to the times and the other events" (si varia secondo la condizione de' tempi ed altre occorrenzie ).

The thrust of the movements we call the "scientific revolution" and the "Enlightenment" was anticontextual in the sense that participants were concerned with formulating generalizations that would be valid whatever the circumstances. By the late eighteenth century, however, these "enlightened" attitudes were coming to be viewed as part of an intellectual old regime against which a more "historicist" generation revolted around the year 1800, stressing differences between individuals and cultures at the expense of general laws.

The Rise of Cultural Context

This "Counter-Enlightenment" was associated with a further expansion in the meaning of the term "context," increasingly concerned not only with local circumstances but also with the "historical context" of an entire culture, society, or age. A famous example is Madame de Staël's essay De la littérature considerée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; The influence of literature upon society). Within the German tradition of hermeneutics, the classical scholar Friedrich Ast distinguished in 1808 between the literal or grammatical level of interpretation, the historical level (concerned with meaning), and the cultural level, concerned with grasping the "spirit" (Geist ) of antiquity or other periods.

Karl Marx was a contextualist in another sense, concerned to locate consciousness and its expressions within "life," especially social life. Marxists and non-Marxists alike were increasingly concerned with Zusammenhang, the connection between the parts and the whole.

Material context was also taken more seriously in the early nineteenth century than before. In archaeology, the increasing concern with stratigraphy in the early nineteenth century implied a concern with context or location. Antoine Quatremère de Quincy denounced the looting of Italian works of art by Napoleon, Lord Elgin, and others on the grounds that this uprooting or déplacement deprived the objects of their cultural value. Later in the century, the German anthropologist Franz Boas caused a sensation in museum circles by arguing that artifacts should be arranged by "culture area" rather than evolutionary sequence because an object could not be understood "outside of its surroundings."

The Discovery of Situation

In a number of disciplines in the 1920s and 1930s, especially sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology, the term "situation" came to play a central role. Karl Mannheim, for instance, one of the pioneers of the sociology of knowledge, treated ideas as socially situated (literally "tied to the situation," Situationsgebunden ). At much the same time the sociologist William I. Thomas was stressing the importance of what he called "the definition of the situation" for social action. In psychology, Lev Vygotsky and Aleksandr Luria argued that the mentality of illiterates was characterized by "concrete or situational thinking."

In the case of history, we might contrast the French with the British approach. Marc Bloch's famous study Les rois thaumaturges (1924) attempted to make the belief in the supernatural power of the royal touch intelligible by presenting it as part of a system of "collective representations," while R. G. Collingwood and Herbert Butterfield concerned themselves with contexts and situations at the individual level. For Butterfield, the historian's task was to place an individual action "in its historical context." For his part, Collingwood declared that "every event is a conscious reaction to a situation, not the effect of a cause."

Anthropology is sometimes perceived as the contextual discipline par excellence. More exactly, it became this kind of discipline in the 1920s, thanks to Bronislaw Malinowski. Meaning, he argued, is dependent on the "context of situation." In a famous example he referred to a stick that might be used for digging, punting, walking, or fighting. "In each of these specific uses," he claimed, "the stick is embedded in a different cultural context." Malinowski's ideas about context were taken further by his pupil Edward Evans-Pritchard, in a study of witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande in which the author argued that "an individual in one situation will employ a notion he excludes in a different situation."

The Contextual Turn

In the last generation we have seen what might be called a "contextual turn," on the analogy of so many other turns in intellectual history. One sign of change is the increasing use of terms such as "contextualism," "contextualization," and "de-contextualization." In the case of theology, the "contextual reinterpretation" of religion has been under discussion. In ethics, a movement known as "situationism" has effectively revived casuistry under another name. In philosophy, John Austin's analysis of the "occasion" and "context" of utterances remains influential. In educational sociology and psychology, the work of Basil Bernstein and Jerome Bruner on "context-dependent" and "context-independent" learning illustrates the trend.

In literary criticism the idea of placing a poem "in context," or even "in total context," was defended by the Cambridge critic F. W. Bateson and denounced by F. R. Leavis, who argued that "social context" meant merely "one's personal living."

In the 1950s and 1960s, sociolinguists such as Dell Hymes and William Labov noted that the same people speak differently according to the context or situation. Even in the case of the law, concerned with general rules, the rise of "context sensitivity" has been noted. In sociology, Anthony Giddens described "locale" as essential to what he calls the "contextuality" of social interaction, while feminists such as Donna Haraway revived and revised Mannheim's concept of "situated knowledge."

A concern with situation and performance has become increasingly visible in recent decades in musicology and art history. Thus the phrase "performative context" has come into use to refer to the adaptation of music to suit a certain place, occasion, and audience. In art history, where an artist's style was once taken to be an expression of his or her personality, it is now interpreted as a kind of performance. A movement for a "contextual archaeology" has made its appearance.

In intellectual history the concern with context is even more explicit, above all at Cambridge University. In the 1950s, Peter Laslett argued the case for placing Locke's Second Treatise of Government in a "revised historical context." In his Barbarism and Religion (1999) J. G. A. Pocock, a student of Butterfield's, set out "to effect a series of contextualizations" of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (17761788). Quentin Skinner's work relies still more on the idea of context, whether linguistic, intellectual, or political. In the philosophy and history of science, the foundation of the journal Science in Context, in 1987, offers another example of context-consciousness, at once an attempt to emulate the historians of political thought and a response to a continuing debate over the status of scientific knowledge, universal or local.

See also Cultural Studies ; Historiography .

bibliography

Boas, Franz. "Museums of Ethnology and Their Classification." Science 9 (1887): 587589.

Burke, Peter. "Context in Context." Common Knowledge 8, no. 1 (2002): 152177.

Collingwood, R. G. "Outlines of a Philosophy of History." In The Idea of History, edited by Jan van der Dussen, 426496. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Giglioli, Pier Paolo, comp. Language and Social Context. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1972.

Leites, Edmund, ed. Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mannheim, Karl. Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge. Edited by David Kettler, Volker Meja, and Nico Stehr. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. Translation of Das Konservative Denken.

Thomas, William I. "Situational Analysis" In W. I. Thomas on Social Organisation and Social Personality, edited by Morris Janowitz, 154167. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. New York, 1990.

Tully, James, ed. Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1988.

Peter Burke

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CONTEXT

CONTEXT.
1. Also co-text. The speech, writing, or print that normally precedes and follows a word or other element of language. The meaning of words may be affected by their context. If a phrase is quoted out of context, its effect may be different from what was originally intended.

2. The linguistic, situational, social, and cultural environment of an element of language, an action, behaviour, etc. Technically, the occurrence of a word in a linguistic context is said to be determined by collocational or selectional restrictions: the use of rancid with butter and bacon, of flock with sheep and birds, of pack with dogs, wolves, and cards. Generally, such association is largely or wholly determined by meaning (drink milk/beer, eat bread/meat), but meaning can be affected by collocation: white as in white wine, white coffee, and white people. Non-linguistic context is often referred to as situation, and meaning expressed in terms of context is reference (in contrast with SENSE, which exists in and among language elements regardless of context). To illustrate the meaning of ram by pointing to a picture or an animal is to use context, but to define it as male sheep in contrast with ewe is to do so by means of sense. See SEMANTICS.

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context

con·text / ˈkänˌtekst/ • n. the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed: the decision was within the context of planned spending. ∎  the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning. PHRASES: in context considered together with the surrounding words or circumstances. out of context without the surrounding words or circumstances and so not fully understandable: comments that aides have long insisted were taken out of context.DERIVATIVES: con·text·less adj. con·tex·tu·al / kənˈtekschoōəl/ adj. con·tex·tu·al·ly adv.

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Context

CONTEXT

The language that precedes and follows a series of words, such as a particular sentence or clause.

The context of a legal document is often scrutinized to shed light upon the intent of an ambiguous or obscure sentence or clause so that it may be interpreted as its drafter intended.

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context

context †construction, composition XV; connected structure of a composition or passage, parts immediately before and after a given passage XVI. — L. contextus, f. context-, pp. stem of contexere weave together, f. CON- + texere weave.
Hence contextual XIX.

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context

context A type of tissue that constitutes a fungal fruit body.

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context

contextBakst, unrelaxed •next, oversexed, sext, text, undersexed •teletext • context • subtext •hypertext •betwixt, unmixed •suffix

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