Some context for understanding context
Some context for understanding context

Featured Image is Still Life with Bible, by Vincent van Gogh.

Consider a simple hermeneutic (that is, theory of interpretation):

  1. To correctly interpret something, you must have the right context.
  2. To know what context is right, you need yet more context.
  3. Context is boundless.
  4. You need to know all context in order to know what finite amount of context is necessary to correctly interpret a specific thing.
  5. You cannot know all context, because 3.
  6. You cannot correctly interpret anything.

Let’s call this the skeptic’s hermeneutic. It’s pretty silly, right? But once you bring context into the equation, it gets very hard to resist the pull of this logic. A paper by Deirdre McCloskey I read recently had a section that seems relevant here:

Still, Mokyr and Grief are vexed that I keep giving them reading lists in the humanities. I must say I am astonished by their vexation. I myself admit that I have not read all the works in neo-institutional economics that the critics gathered here cite. I am ashamed that I haven’t, and promise to try to do better. I thought this was the way we do things in science—giving out reading lists, testing one another, discovering our hidden presuppositions, many of which can in fact be discovered by serious listening to literature and its literature (called the humanities, Geisteswissenschaften, sciences humaines). Science is difficult. We’re not supposed to whine that it’s too much work to listen, really listen. A long time ago, in a group of admiring grad students and faculty at the University of Iowa’s narrow Department of Philosophy, I asked John Searle, whom I know a bit and whose books are on the reading lists I give out, whether he had read Hegel. John replied, “No, and I intend never to do so”, at which we all (even I, to my shame) laughed, signaling a [purposely ignorant] scorn for the whole of what is known in the trade as Continental philosophy.

One defense mechanism against the pull of the skeptic’s hermeneutic is to dismiss a lot of potential context as worthless. Thus McCloskey’s critics dismiss the relevance of the humanities, and Searle dismisses Continental philosophy. McCloskey, on the other hand, confesses that she does not have all of the relevant context, and promises to try and do better. What more can one ask?

Ryan’s recent post relies on an optimistic hermeneutic. At least, it is optimistic in the sense of holding that it is possible to know the relevant context for understanding something, if pessimistic that most people will bother. I share his optimism.

But in discussing the post with him, it seems that he believes a lot of meaning is radically historical, where most believe there to be more general meaning outside of the most contingent of context.

To respond to this, let’s perform a little exegesis (the practice of interpretation) on a relevant post of David’s.

Here is one bundle of context:

Here is another bundle of context:

  • People struggle with how much research they have to do before they can be confident they really understand something.
  • The structure of knowledge seems to be such that you can always add more context that sheds some light on something you had not previously noticed.

Let’s call these Bundle A and Bundle B, respectively.

I would argue that almost every likely reader of David’s post will come knowing Bundle B, at least implicitly.

Bundle A is entirely made up of contingent context that almost no reader would have. Does it help to have? Well, it certainly helps to interpret the following passage:

It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to learn to play Beethoven’s piano music with this teacher, not anytime in my lifetime, so I fired her, which made me feel bad because it was my mom, and she needed the money, which was the immediate cause of her homelessness, along with all those of hers.

“Oh, that’s in response to that thing the critic said,” I thought at the time.

That’s nice to know. But do you really need that information to understand the meaning of the piece?

Of course not. Everyone who has read this piece has probably grasped its meaning; that is, that it’s hard to find the “ground” where it’s OK to stop adding more context. Where you feel sure of your footing.

I think we can all relate to that.

Previous Posts in This Thread (read all of these first, for context):

5 thoughts on “Context

  1. “But in discussing the post with him, it seems that he believes in a radical historicality for a lot of what we believe has more general meaning outside of the most contingent of its context.”

    Emphasis added, in defense of my point. I would argue that belief in a general meaning outside of a specific theory posited in a specific context is something you are adding that wasn’t previously there. The generalized version of X’s theory is only X’s theory if X himself/herself posited that theory. If it is rather Y who generalizes X’s specific theory ex post facto, then that was never part of X’s original theory or context in the first place.

    The idea might still have value, but it wasn’t there originally.

      1. It probably does require defending – and I should probably defend it (maybe my next post? 🙂 ).

        But, I don’t think it’s all that bold. If I say, “I think American football is a cool sport,” and you say, “I agree with you; all American sports are cool sports,” then I think you have not only said something different than I have, but also something that drops the context of my original statement. Intuitively, we know this to be true, but the trick is finding the right philosophical argument to make the common-sense case more robust.

  2. pxdelaney

    Have you written a post yet on how this line of argument is deployed as a rhetorical device? Pointing to a reading list is, I think, a pretty poor substitute for engagement (and perhaps, to speculate completely, why “Mokyr and Grief are vexed that I keep giving them reading lists in the humanities”).

    1. I should have said this explicitly, but that’s part of what makes David’s post so funny: if you take “read a book” as a _barrier_ before discussion can happen, rather than a suggestion of where to proceed, then yeah, it’s absolutely a sand-bagging tactic.

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