Context As Observer

Consider a context as a reflection of one point of view. As a frame or lense through which the external environment is observed. The “things” that “matter” to the context are the events or features which are both:

  • VISIBLE – or otherwise perceptible, and
  • NAMEABLE – or describable/categorizable

If something is imperceptible, then obviously there will be nothing to notice – no “referent”. In this case, imagined perceptions will be included as “perceptible”. If the thing which could be perceived is not nameable or otherwise describable within the context, then the context hasn’t noticed it and it does not exist.

That is to say, that a reality exists independent of any particular context, but in terms of the point of view of the context, that which the context has no expression for lies outside of the context. If context is the perceiver, then the indescribable reality outside of the context may as well not exist, for all the benefit the context gains from it.

Every context that exists is limited to the perception of  only a subset of reality. Is there a limit to the perception of reality if we take into account the sum total of all contexts in existence today, and all those which existed in the past? Yes, else one would expect that invention and discovery would cease.

Context is a feature of communication. It is not reality, which is the referent of the communication.

An example comes to mind from the physical world. One context may be the one in which the speed of a particle is important. Another context may be the one in which the position of the particle in space and time is important. Then there’s the context of Quantum Mechanics which is the one which first recognized that there were two other contexts (although it did not call them this) and that one interferes with the other. In QM, due to the known limitations of the physical world and our ability to perceive it at a particular level, these two contexts can never observe the same exact phenomenon. An observer in one context that observes one aspect of the particle necessarily changes the condition of the particle so that the other condition is no longer perceptible.

This seems really trivial, until we broaden the idea out to more complex contexts. The world is an analog, continuous place. Even the most complex context however can only perceive and name certain aspects, and is unaware of or finds inexpressible other aspects.

This is the place where poets and artists find creative expression and energy, between the lines of the necessarily constrained contexts of their own ability to communicate.

Out of the whole continuity of experience and phenomena which is the world about us, we are selective about the things we notice and think and speak about. Why one observation is made instead of another is based wholly on the things we find “remarkable”.

We remark on the things that are remarkable to us. By this I mean, the things we wish to convey or communicate are the things we find words to express. This “finding of words” includes inventing words and turns of phrase. After all, we each bring to the human table a uniqueness of vision commensurate to our talents, proclivities and experience.

Those to whom we successfully impart our observations, thru the act of their understanding the message, enter into the context of discourse of those observations. Once in that context, they may corroborate or elaborate on my original observations, broadening and enriching the context. Over time our collective observations become codified and regular, our terminology more richly evocative and concise, such that we may begin to speak in a shorthand.

Where a paragraph once was needed, now a sentence – where once a sentence now a single term…

As we start recognizing more and more examples of a phenomena, we invent a sublanguage which, when used within the context (and with the proper participants – see definition of context – i.e., with other people who share this context) is perfectly understandable.

An extreme example of differences in contexts would be the contrast of elementary school arithmetics versus obscure branches of mathematics research. The concepts which matter in the one are inconceivable in the other, the notation and terminology of the one are indecipherable in the other.

Consider the origin and usage of the term “ponzi scheme”. The original of the type was perpetrated by a man named “Ponzi”. Anyone who has operated a similar scheme since can now be referred to using the name of one notorious example. In recent years, the largest ponzi scheme ever perpetrated was the brainchild of Bernie Madoff. Time will tell if future outrageously immense ponzi schemes will be given a new moniker.

We might ask: “In what sense do we say that a “context” is an “observer”? There are a few ways we can use this analogy. First, a context is the product of communication among indidivual humans. It is the participation in the communication, in sending and receiving message, that creates the scope of the communication. What is communicated is the shared observations of the participant community.

Context Is:

Communication == Community == Communication

Information transfer among a group of individuals who share a common interest.

The language used is necessarily constrained, at first informally but later perhaps more rigidly as communication becomes more focused. Difficult observations require lots of talk. Once the idea has been grasped, however, less and less is needed to evoke the memory of the original idea, until a single term from the original description can be used as a stand-in.

It is not the abstract notion of a context that actually does the observing. Rather it is the community members themselves, the humans, who do the observing. The subject of communication is necessarily the things of interest to the community. But an individual who observes something is not necessarily participating in the context. Only the observations that are shared and received are part of the context.

A second sense in which the context can be described as the observer at an abstract level. While the context is formed from the collective interests and communication of the group of humans, eventually, the context becomes prescriptive. The extent and content of the shared sublanguage then defines the type and content of the observations that can be made by the members of the context. An observation that falls outside of the context’s prescriptive rules for content and structure is likely not to be understood (received). If it is not received, it may as well not have happened, hence such messages fall out of context.  The more constrained and formalized the context, the more explicit and succinct the observations that can be carried by that context, but also the fewer the variety of observations.

Successful study of the constraints and observations within a context occurs in much of the “social sciences”. Much can be deduced about what is important within a community by analysing the rules and limits of the communication that community’s context permits. In particular, a sense of the portion of existence important to the context can be deduced from the study of the observations communicated within that context.


4 Responses

  1. You could expand this to other areas. Religion is my passion and I make this argument to horrified Christians. [eventually, the context becomes prescriptive.] Language evolves, as you express, by framing ideas.

    Eventually the key terms can become markers representing an idea. However, in religion, these ideas were not always uniform– meaning new explanations became the translation and now are quoted as support of the new position. But, originally the term meant something else.

    Does this happen in science?

    • Absolutely, I think this is the human condition.

      My perception of what happens in the scientific community is that they are often in the unique position of discovering something new about reality and then having to “report it out” back to the rest of us.

      Well before they go and get everyone excited about it, they have to discuss the observation amongst themselves, just to be sure they aren’t finding something that either: someone else already found, or that really isn’t what is happening.

      In the course of discussing these phenomenon in the community of scientists, this process of coining a term or constraining a reference word happens all the time. Sometimes there’s no good word for a new thing, Sometimes, someone will coin a whole language for a thing (by coopting analogies) to describe it to his peer scientists, only to find out later that someone else described the same reality in an entirely different terminology (chose different analogies).

      There is a whole lot of scientific literature out there where the bulk of the discussion is either justifying a terminology choice, or equating (or contrasting) one terminology with another. In some fields, it feels like the bulk of the literature is about some nuanced difference in usage of terms which to an outsider feels like endless splitting of hairs…

      In your example of a term taking on a different meaning in support of a new position. I think what happens here is that within the original context, the term had a definite meaning and usage. But the original context slowly gives way to new context as the original participants die off. The meaning can get misunderstood, or the colloquial usage of a term in other contexts can muddy new participant’s in a context.

      And let’s not forget the utility of coopting terminology on purpose to make a political point (e.g. “socialism”, “fascism” – these terms seem to be taking on additional, more diffuse connotations in recent years from what they clearly meant a century ago).

      The term’s current usage will be “similar” to the original, more or less, but can drift. Part of this is because no single term can restrict the evocation of related ideas in someone’s head.

      As much as I enjoy tweaking someone’s nose by pointing out the historical meaning of something when they use an old term in a new way, as a practical matter, this won’t change their minds on the usage they want to make of the term. Because the term is now in a different context and in that context, the meaning is now just as precise and to the point as when it was used in the older context. It’s just going to be a different point!

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thank you for your response. A brief example of evolving language can be found in English if we look at the origin of the letter ‘J’.

    Around the reformation the letter was created to distinguish Jesus and avoid confusion with like names.

    In fact the Koine Greek varies from classical Greek and modern Greek. It appears that some interpretations were adapted to fit a belief rather than give historic meanings.

    In science I have heard the media portray the science incorrectly and the popular belief seems to eventually encompass the correct. Example, “the species adapted to the new climate.” It sounds like they made a choice and changed. But we know that certain variations survive to pass on genes and they mutate to take advantage of a different niche. My kids thought the animals changed themselves or behavior and had a poor grasp of the theory.

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