Context matters

It supplies meaning
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Presented at The Developing Group, 5 Apr 2003

This year we will explore six aspects of the philosophical basis for Symbolic Modelling:

Multiple Perspectives
Developmental perspective
It’s happening now

These six aspects are highly interconnected and form part of a larger ‘cosmology’. Our purpose in constructing such a cosmology is to enhance your ability to facilitate others to self-model their own constructs and to evolve in ways that are aligned with their system’s natural development. Our aim is to operate out of constructs that are sufficiently flexible, open, inclusive and responsive that they enable us to:

  • minimally contaminate the client’s perceptions
  • be maximally informed by the client’s language and behaviour
  • construct a model that is maximally isomorphic with the client’s model
  • retain our own independence and integrity.

2. Context

Most of the following consists of quotes of a theoretical nature about context.

But before that, here is a practical exercise to sharpen your awareness of how Clean Language makes use of context.

For each of the following 14 questions, identify both:

  • What context is the client invited to attend to?
  • How is the that context specified or presupposed?

Client: “My heart is broken inside.”


  1. And when your heart is broken inside, what would you like to have happen?
  2. And when heart is broken, what would you like to have happen?
  3. And when your heart is broken, what would heart like to have happen?
  4. And when your heart is broken, what would you like to have happen now?
  5. And when heart is broken inside, what kind of inside?
  6. And when heart is broken inside, whereabouts inside?
  7. And where is that heart?
  8. And when heart is broken inside, what happens next?
  9. And then what happens?
  10. And where could that heart come from?
  11. And what happens just before heart is broken?
  12. And what kind of heart was that heart before it was broken?
  13. And where did the broken of that heart come from?
  14. And how old could that heart be?

Our answer

From the above you will notice that certain words cue the client to attend to a particular context. In Clean Language the following words are used to presuppose and direct attention within a specified temporal context:

Commonly used As, Just before, Next, Then, When, Now

However, there are other temporal cues which are occasionally in Clean Language when circumstances permit:

 Less commonly usedAfter, Before, Between, How old, During, Just after, Later, Prior, Previous, Since, Subsequent, Throughout, While

Quotations about context

Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, Bantam Books, 1988, p. 15:

Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all. This is true not only of human communication in words but also of all communication whatsoever, of all mental process, of all mind, including that which tells the sea anemone how to grow and the amoeba what he should do next.

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Little, Brown & Co., 2002 p. 152-167:

What we think of as inner states — preferences and emotions — are actually powerfully and imperceptibly influenced by seemingly inconsequential personal influences, by a newscaster we watch for a few minutes a day, or by someone we sit next to, in silence, in a two-minute experiment.  The essence of the Power of Context is that the same thing is true for certain kinds of environments — that in ways that we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances.

Psychologists call the tendency of thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing as the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context.  We will always reach for a ‘dispositional’ explanation for events, as opposed to a contextual explanation.

Character, then, isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be.  It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized.  Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context.  The reason that most of us seemed to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

What this study [The Good Samaritan] is suggesting is that the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior.

There is a world of difference between being inclined towards violence and actually committing a violent act.  A crime is a relatively rare and aberrant event.  For a crime to be committed, something extra, something additional, has to happen to tip a troubled person toward violence, and what the Power of Context is saying is that those Tipping Points may be as simple and trivial as everyday signs of disorder like graffiti and fare-beating.

Once you understand that context matters — that specific and relatively small elements in the environment can serve as Tipping Points — defeatism is turned upside down.  Environmental Tipping Points are things that we can change: we can fix broken windows and clean up graffiti and change the signals that invite crime in the first place. Children are powerfully shaped by their external environment.  Studies of juvenile delinquency and high school drop-out rates, for example, demonstrate that a child is better off in a good neighborhood and a troubled family than he or she is in a troubled neighborhood and a good family.  Features of our immediate social and physical world — the streets we walk down, the people we encounter — play a huge role in shaping who we are and how we act.  It isn’t just serious criminal behavior, in the end, that is sensitive to environmental cues, it is all behavior.

Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, The Collapse of Chaos, Penguin, 1995, p. 354-356:

The meaning in a language does not reside in the code, the words, the grammar, the symbols. It stems from the shared interpretation of those symbols in the mind of the sender and receiver.  This in turn stems from the existence of a shared context. For language, the context is the culture shared by those who speak that language.  For the DNA message, the context is biological development.It is possible to change an organism entirely by changing only a few bits’ worth of its DNA. On the other hand, if an anglerfish larva encounters a mature female, then chemicals produced by that females switch it into male mode.  All other larvae turn into females.  Anglerfish males and females have identical DNA, so a change of zero bits of DNA produces an entirely different organism — everything is determined by context.

All messages in the real world that really are messages happen within a context.  The context may be evolutionary, chemical, biological, neurological, linguistic, or technological, but it transforms the question of information content beyond measure.

Our senses are contextual. Sense organs do not simply let sensations in; they abstract high-level features of the sensory data.  Moreover, our sense organs must be constructed and modified as we develop; our surroundings determine what our eyes can see, or our ears can hear, as we develop their abilities by exposing ourselves to different contexts.  Language is a kind of sense — it, too, involves processing incoming data and extracting meaning — and it is the most self-referential of our sense organs.

Our “language organ” creates a context for each book we read and each play we see, and it is within that context that the story takes on a meaning.  We know that a murder in a play is not something that the police need to be informed about and we notice not because of the words and grammar, but because we know that we are in a theatre and that theatres are places where such things happen. [Gregory] Bateson’s insight about baby monkeys is of the same kind:  Monkeys could distinguish play from reality because they were in “play mode.”

Connirae and Steve Andreas, Heart of the Mind, 1989, p. 96:

There is an old joke about an elderly gentleman who went to his doctor, complaining that he had regular bowel movements every morning at 8:30.  His doctor looked a little puzzled and replied, “Many of my older patients would be very glad to have regular bowel movements.  How is that a problem for you?”  The gentleman replied, “Well, the problem is I never wake up til 9:30.”

Although this story is a joke, it is also an example of what is called context reframing: A behavior that is fine in one context becomes a problem in a different one (and vice-versa).  We want to make two points with this story.  The first is the speed with which your mind reevaluated the old gentleman’s situation when you read about his not waking up before 9:30.

The second point is that the joke, and the change in your perception, results from a presupposition.  The fact that he wakes up after 9:30 presupposes that he is still in bed at 8:30, even though nothing was actually stated about his being in bed at that time.

You will also notice that the Andreas’ set the context for the story by telling us it is an “old joke” and hence we were primed for a switch with the punch line.

Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, Anchor Books, 1977, p. 91-131:

Edward Hall notes that messages can be placed on a continuum related to the amount of contextual information required for the message to be understood:

A high-context communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.  A low-context communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code.  Twins who have grown up together can and do communicate more economically (with high context messages) than two lawyers in a courtroom during a trial (low context messages).

Although no culture exists exclusively at one end of the scale, some are high while others are low.  American culture, while not on the bottom, is towards the lower end of the scale.  We are still considerably above the German-Swiss, the Germans, and the Scandinavians in the amount of contexting needed in everyday life. China, the possessor of a great and complex culture is on the high context end of the scale.

A universal feature of information systems (what the receiver is expected to do) is made up of: the communication, the background and pre-programmed responses of the recipient, and the situation.  (We call these last two the internal and external contexts.)

In general, high-context communication is economical, fast, efficient and satisfying; however, time must be devoted to [pre-]programming.  If this programming does not take place, the communication is incomplete.  High-context communications are frequently used as art forms.  They act as a unifying, cohesive force, are long-lived, and are slow to change.  Low context communications do not unify; however, they can be changed easily and rapidly.  This is why evolution by extension is so incredibly fast; extensions in their initial stages of development are low-context.

Like all mechanical extensions, most photographs and all TV images are low-context.  One of the consequences is that the viewer never knows what’s going on off camera.  This makes it possible to trick him, as in the case with all low-context systems, like the trout going after the fisherman’s lure.

As things become more complex, as they inevitably must with fast-evolving, low-context systems, it becomes necessary to turn life and institutions around and move towards the greater stability of the high-context part of the scale as a way of dealing with information overload.

Contexting is apparently deeply embedded in processes governing the evolution of both the nervous systems and the sensory receptors, particularly the eyes and the ears.  In fact, it appears that one of the principal consequences of the evolution of the neocortex — the ‘new brain’ that is so highly developed in man — has been to equip the human species so that man can detect and work with patterns to a greater degree than other life forms.  Pattern-recognizing ability is what makes it possible to read [poor] handwriting and to understand people who have lost important parts of the speech apparatus such as the tongue.

When using night vision correctly, one navigates almost entirely by context. A person must try not to look directly at anything at night.  If he does, he will not see what he is looking at.  It takes time, but as those who have done it know, it is possible to fill in the details from context and memory.

The above shows that Edward Hall distinguishes between four different but interrelated processes of contexting:

Programmed / Internalised  A function of biographical experience.
Innate  A function of ancestral evolution
(e.g. the structure of the nervous system).
Situation / Setting  A function of the kind of event
(e.g. Football supporters whose team have won or lost).
Environmental  A function of the physical world.
And on modelling Edward Hall says:

Each culture is not only an integrated whole but has its own rules for learning.  These are reinforced by different patterns of over-all organization.  An important part of understanding a different culture is learning how things are organized and how one goes about learning them in that culture.  This is not possible if one persists in using the learning models handed down in one’s own culture.

What applies to cultures, also applies to individual metaphor landscapes. Hall is saying, not only do we need to model from within the context of the client’s Landscape, but also that we need to model the learning processes of that particular Landscape, i.e. how it adapts and changes.

Charles Hampden-Turner, Maps of the Mind, (1982) p. 170:

The ‘double bind’ statement is one made at at least two levels of logical typing in which the context, or meta-message, which comments on that statement appears to invalidate the statement made.  A double bind is a confusion as to which two contrasting values or ideas should be regarded as ‘the message’ and which as ‘context’, or which as ‘figure’ and which as ‘ground’. “Mother is furious because she loves you.”  Does mother hate certain things I do in the context of love, or does she just pretend to love me in the context of real hatred?  This is so important a difference, so terrifying an uncertainty that the inability to decide is ample grounds for insanity.

I would characterize the double bind as an ever-reversable figure-ground relationship and an ever-ambiguous oscillation between message and context, with conflict not only within levels, but between them.  

If the logical types that discriminate between context and behavior collapse, then the cybernetic cycle of socialization will go into runaway, oscillation and extremism.  In normal behavior, criticism ‘nests’ with basic acceptance, anger within affection, reserve within warmth and independence within dependence, or vice versa.  Such behaviors are mutually containing and constraining, like a self-correcting system.  But once behavior breaks from the constraint of context, the self-exciting system spirals out of control.  

Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Newleaf, p. 123-124:

The first important truth about postmodernism is that reality is not in all ways pregiven, but in some significant ways is a construction, an interpretation. This view is often called ‘constructivism’  [the subject of the February, 2003 Developing Group Day].

The second important truth of postmodernism, namely, that meaning is context-dependent is often called ‘contextualism’.  The word ‘bark,’ for example, means something entirely different in the phrases ‘The bark of a dog’ and ‘The bark of a tree’ — in other words, meaning is in many important ways dependent upon the context in which it finds itself.  Moreover, these contexts are in principle endless or boundless, and thus there is no way finally to master and control meaning once and for all (because one can always imagine a further context that would alter the present meaning).

The importance of contextualism … came to the fore historically with what has been called the linguistic turn in philosophy — the general realization that language is not simply a representation of a pregiven world, but has a hand in the creation and construction of that world.

Most forms of postmodern poststructuralism trace their lineage to the work of the brilliant and pioneering linguist, Ferdinand D. Saussure. Saussure’s work, and especially his Course in General Linguistics (1916), was the basis of much of modern linguistics and his essential insights are as cogent today as they were when he first advanced them almost a century ago.

Saussure pointed out, it is the relationship amongst all of the words themselves that stabilizes meaning (and not merely some simple pointing to [or representing] an object, because that pointing cannot even be communicated without a total structure that holds each word in meaningful place).  So — and this was Saussure’s great insight — a meaningless element becomes meaningful only by virtue of the total structure.  In other words every sign is a holon, a context within contexts within contexts in the overall network.  And this means, said Saussure, that the entire language is instrumental in conferring meaning on an individual word.

In other words, every subjective intentionality is situated in vast networks of intersubjective or cultural contexts that are instrumental in the creation and interpretation of meaning itself.  Meaning is not merely objective pointing but intersubjective networks; not just representational images but systemic networks — and the meaning is as much a result of the network as of the reference.  This is precisely why meaning is indeed context-dependent, and why the bark of a dog is different from the bark of a tree.

Language does not merely report to the world, represent the world, describe the world.  Rather, language creates worlds, and in that creation is power.  Language creates, distorts, carries, discloses, hides, allows, oppresses, enriches, enthralls.

The fact that meaning is context-dependent means that a multiperspective approach to reality is called for.  Any single perspective is likely to be partial, limited, perhaps even distorted, and only by taking multiple perspectives and multiple contexts can the knowledge quest be fruitfully advanced.  And that ‘diversity’ is the third important truth of general postmodernism (this is called ‘integral-aperspectival’).

David Hawkins< I/Reality & Subjectivity, Chapter 10 “The Nature of God”.

God is the ultimate context.


Alternatively it could be said: ‘God is infinite context’.

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