Context Reduction

I’m working on my brevity these days, so I’m going to try to write this post in twenty minutes or less.

In Adam’s recent post about context, he writes (emphasis mine):

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.

I may indeed be radically historical, but I haven’t ever considered that. In fact, the mere notion of a “radically historical perspective” is  an entirely new ingredient not initially contained in my post about frames of reference. It’s entirely possible that Adam is correct about my perspective – but I honestly don’t know about that, and it doesn’t directly pertain to my point.

The reason I’m writing about this is to highlight a risk in the consumption of ideas: Not only is it possible to lack context, it is also possible to import context that was not or should not be there.

I see this quite often. The news is replete with stories of well-meaning university faculty whose innocuous emails receive an identity-politics reevaluation, and next thing we know, a scandal has erupted. Scarcely can any major crime occur that the media begins saying things like, “We don’t know yet if the suspects are tied to terrorist groups,” which is a factually correct statement that nevertheless imports the context of terrorism to a situation that might not actually involve real terrorists.

I see this also in the marketplace for ideas. For example, Paul recently wrote a blog post about capabilitarianism that I quite liked. I felt that he was correct in the main, but Paul references the ideas of Amartya Sen in absence of the context of the Indian partition, the Pakistani genocide of Bangladeshis, the subsequent Bangladeshi war of independence, and the resulting martial law and systemic bifurcation of Bangladeshi society between “rich” and “poor.” In that context, the context in which Sen’s ideas actually emerged, the comparison to American civil liberties is much weaker. And because I know a bit about Bangladeshi history, I found that part of Paul’s otherwise excellent blog post less strong than the balance of it.

In short, it is possible to universalize something that is not truly universal. It’s possible to bend the language of the civil rights movement so that it can be deployed against campus faculty emails, it’s possible to use emerging market societies’ theories to attempt to explain developed-market social trends, and so forth.

My view is that we should be very cautious about generalizing intellectual principles. In some cases they can indeed be generalized, but in some cases not. What you include in your frame of reference can affect your conclusion every bit as much as what you exclude. The goal should always be not to be “right in a manner of speaking,” or “right from a certain perspective,” but to simply be right.

I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying that’s the goal.

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