The Scope of Context

Most often I have come to think of the term “context” as shorthand for social context. Which is in its turn shorthand for the social, political,  economic, historical, religious locatedness of a text and its authors, compilers, editors. The importance of context in that sense was made evident to me by Harvey Cox whose essay for the New Religious Movements project (Center for the Study of New Religious Movements, Graduate Theological Union, 1977–1983, essay in Understanding the New Religions, ed. Needleman and Baker, Seabury, 1978) talks about how understanding the polemic character of a work is essential. That is, in order to understand the claims made in a text, one needs to understand the positions to which it is antagonistic, or, as one might ask today, “Who are the text’s dialogue partners?” (That sounds so much nicer, after all, even though contestation has characterized the history of inter-religious relations more than has dialogue.)
There is, however, another meaning of context, which was highlighted by Dr. Prof. em. Ernst Steinkellner in his keynote address to the 17th IASBS in Vienna, titled “Dharmakīrti’s method for ascertaining causality and its alleged failure to solve the induction problem.”
Steinkellner talked about how a single line from Dharmakīrti (in the Pramāṇavārttikasvavṛtti, if my understanding is correct) had been taken as demonstrating the inadequacy of Dharmakīrti’s grasp of induction and its problems. Steinkellner then went on to point out the necessity of also considering the next two lines of the text as well. In his reading of this only slightly expanded context, Dharmakīrti did solve the “problem of induction”—as it was understood at that time and place. Thus, “context” includes something as narrow in scope as accompanying lines of text. The closing qualification of Steinkellner’s comments as summarized above points, however, toward the other end of the scope of context.
The judgment that Dharmakīrti fails to solve the “problem of induction” itself fails to contextualize the “problem of induction.” This is not to claim that Dharmakīrti couldn’t solve the problem because of his context. But rather to locate the problem of induction in the stream of thought running from Aristotle through Bacon to Mill. It is not, in other words, universal, even though there may be close corollaries, such as the concern with demonstrating certainty regarding causality as discussed by Steinkellner.
The tendency to lift up (aufheben) a concept from the philosophic (or religious) traditions of Euro-America, and consider it as universally constitutive of philosophic (or religious) thought without qualification seems to be a not uncommon problem in the comparative project which arises when one attempts to understand the meaning of texts such as Dharmakīrti’s.
Being able to universally apply a concept, such as induction and its attendant problems, does not mean that it is the right tool for the job. It may be like using a hammer to drive screws. It can be done, but it tends to make a mess of things in the process. So the appropriate comparative context for answering a question such as the adequacy of Dharmakīrti’s understanding of induction and its problems is, as indicated by Steinkellner’s comments, Dharmakīrti’s own. For that we need to ask not “Did Dharmakīrti understand induction and its problems (in the way that we understand induction and its problems),” but rather “What was the problem that Dharmakīrti was trying to solve?”

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One thought on “The Scope of Context

  1. I’ve been having the same intuition related to the early Perfection of Wisdom texts and the Heart Sutra in relation to context. An important element in that context is the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. And it’s apparent, after reading articles by Collett Cox and by David Bastow, that few if any people who comment on the PoW and the Heart Sutra understand the Sarvāstivāda. They treat the sarva-asti vāda as something the Vaibhāṣyikas proposed as an axiom, rather than seeing it as a proposed solution to an intractable problem bequeathed them by early Buddhists. In turn this seems to be because almost no one seems to see that problem nowadays (whereas as Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu were aware of it). Without seeing this problem it’s almost impossible to correctly interpret developments in sectarian Buddhism.

    Context is everything. And the question of what problem authors were trying to solve by proposing novel interpretations or doctrines goes to the heart of philology.

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