Context

Article
 
 Editor
Díaz Nafría, José María  jnafria@uax.es
 Incorporated contributions
Díaz (09/01/09)
 Usage domain
transdisciplinary, communication theory
 Type
concept
 French
contexte
 German Kontext

“Context” stems from the Latin verb “contextere”, meaning ‘to weave’ or ‘to interlace’. In a figurative sense, it refers to the interlacing of the meanings contained in a text or, generally, in a communication, as well as in the circumstance in which this communication occurs (e.g. physical, pragmatic and cultural environment). It is this interlacing which enables specifying the meaning of what is intended to communicate. Although the meaning of ‘context’ in relation to statements is common, it is also applicable to the structure in which something is located, and without which it would be unintelligible or less intelligible.

A distinction can be made between situational context (or non-expressive context) and expressive context, in reference to the set of syntactically and semantically related expressions, which, at the same time, are articulated through deixis and modal indicators in the situational context. Furthermore, the situational context can be divided into: general (related to the communicational situation defined by the time, place and action within which the communication is framed), social and personal (defined by the relationship between the communicants in their social interaction, their attitudes, interests and their respective knowledge).

There is a great disparity in the analysis of context from the different notions of information: from complete oblivion (in the most objectivisable meanings of information, according to which information is entirely contained within the message) to central attention (in those perspectives for which information makes only sense in social frameworks or in the adaptation to the environment, and where the message is often regarded as a key to release the information contained in the context). It is ironic that, while in linguistics the importance of context was highlighted, and in physics the classical conception of the outside observer was lost, at the same time Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication defined information as a typical characteristic of the information source without referring to its context. Something similar can be said concerning the origins of the cognitive sciences in the 1956 Symposium on Information Theory, where the consideration of cultural and historical contexts in which cognitive processes are immersed was minimized. However, although we might speak about epistemological anachronism, it also has to be acknowledged that the discussion about the hidden variables in quantum theory was alive, and the project on the unification of sciences of the Vienna circle was still running; on the other hand, the so-called historicist turn, which would underline the importance of cultural contexts, was still far away.

Nevertheless, in the field of →cybernetics, the contextualization of information has been an intrinsic aspect of its theory from the very beginning, since it is in the pragmatic situation (in which the environment is involved) that information gains meaning as a fundamental means to pursue an objective. Even so, it is cybernetics of the second order that will stress its demand with regard to contextualisation, because, in order to survive, it is the regulatory structure of the system (underpinning purpose orientation) which depends on the eventual changes in the environment.

Likewise from the quantum physics point of view, information is –as stated by Mahler– a “contextual concept”, intrinsically linked to a “situation”. This situation is the dynamic scenario where an interacting system makes “decisions”, leading to a proper “information flow”. Therefore, in accordance with current physics, it cannot be said that information is encoded or conveyed in physical, elementary components; instead, it only appears after measuring. (v. →qbit; Mahler 1996). 

From the analysis of the semantic aspects of information there has also been a change towards a stronger concern on contexts: from the “ideal receiver” of Bar-Hillel and Carnap (1952), capable of assessing information in terms of a structure of atomic statements (in an almost formalised language), to the situational semantics of Barwise, Perry, Israel… (1980s and 1990s) in which information is not anymore conceived as a property of events but something essentially dependent on the context and the consistency restrictions between statements (→informational content). Here, it is also worth pointing out the proposal of Dretske that considers information in relation to a knowledge background and the proposal of Floridi basing information not on truth (as Dretske or the situationalists do, involving, in a certain way, a privileged view beyond any context), but on veracity, which entails the fallibility of the interpreter and the belonging to a temporality and a finite knowledge (Floridi 2005).

Although, as stated above, many of the information theories related to cognitive sciences show a reducing tendency to minimise the role of context, in other fields of social science, a number of approaches stressing context as an essential element have arisen. Thus, while under the cognitive interpretation the subject extracts information from the physical-chemical properties of the sensory stimuli, in the hermeneutic, historical, critical-sociological and Luhmannian approach, the reference and meaning only appear contextualised in a cultural world.

In →hermeneutics, understanding is seen as something determined by schemas of pre-understanding determined by the cultural context of the interpreter. In the historical approximations, information acquires the level of genuine historical phenomena (Brown & Duguin 2000, Borgman 1999) or endowed with an essential temporality, which is also concluded from strictly physical assumptions (Matsuno 2000, Lyre 2002).

In Luhmann’s →systems theory, there is not properly a transmission of information. Instead of a direct conveying process, the emitter limits him/herself to making a suggestion for the selection within the “offer of meanings” (Mitteilung), which defines a communication process in a specific, socio-linguistic scenario (Luhmann 1987). However, in Habermas’ critical sociology, the subject (or receiver) –although framed closer to a specific life horizon– has a reflexive faculty (or communicative competence, attained by virtue of being part of a certain social group). Such reflexivity eventually allows him/her to show the distortions, irregularities and censures that conditioning all factual communication processes (Habermas 1981). Hence we might say: Habermas’ contextual interpretation of information enables going beyond Luhmann’s “offer of meaning” or to move –by means of willpower– the hermeneutic life horizon.
 
References
  • BARWISE, J., SELIGMAN, J. (1997). Information Flows: The Logic of Distributed Systems. Cambridge, RU: Cambridge University Press.
  • BORGMAN, A. (1999). Holding on to reality. The nature of information at the turn of the millennium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • BROWN, J. S. y DUGUIN, P. (2000) The Social Life of Information, Boston, MA, USA: Harvard Business School Press.
  • DRETSKE, F.I. (1981). Knowledge and the flow of information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • FLORIDI, L. (2005). Semantic Conceptions of Information. In E. N. Zahlta (ed.) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philisophy. Stanford: The Metaphysics Research Lab [online] <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information-semantic/> [accessed: 12/11/09]
  • HABERMAS, J. (1981). Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
  • LUHMANN, N. (1987). Soziale Systeme. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  • LYRE, H. (2002). Informationstheorie. Eine philosophisch-naturwissenschaftliche Einführung. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag
  • MAHLER, G. (1996), “Quantum Information”, en KORNWACHS y JACOBY (Eds.), Information. New questions to a multidisciplinary concept, pp. 103-118.
  • MATSUNO, K. (2000) “The Internalist Stance. A Linguistic Practice Enclosing Dynamics”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 901, pp. 332-350.
Entries
New entry. Before doing a new entry, please, copy this line and the following ones and paste them at the column bottom. Next fill out the fields: 'name', 'date' and 'text', and delete this upper blue paragraph.
Name (date)
 
[Entry text]


Incorporated entries
Díaz Nafría (09/01/2009)
 
[It corresponds with the first version of the article, which is now showed in the left column.]

Comments